High youth unemployment is a global time bomb. With a generation of young people hampered by an outdated education system and stunted growth in labour markets, youth unemployment in the Arab world stands at 25%. The facts are clear: the Arab world needs to create an estimated 100 million new jobs over the next decade. Youth unemployment has become one of the biggest challenges facing our region.

The overall figures are stark enough, but female youth unemployment rates are even more alarming. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the male youth unemployment rate is 26% in Jordan while female youth unemployment is 47%. In Egypt, where male youth unemployment is at 14%, female youth unemployment is almost four times higher at 54%, and the numbers are similar if not worse in Yemen, the West Bank and Gaza and the Gulf countries.

While education rates are higher for women in the Arab region than they are for men, this has not been followed up in the workplace. Young women with high academic achievements, and rising but unmet aspirations, represent one of the most under-utilized economic assets in the region.

According to a recent study by Booz & Co., raising female economic participation to male working levels in the United Arab Emirates would increase the country’s GDP by 12%; whereas in Egypt, achieving equal male and female economic participation would boost GDP growth by 34%. Despite these facts, neither governments nor business leaders have taken on board a serious, gender-sensitive approach to tackling youth unemployment.

At this transitional period in the region, and with the urgent need for sound and sustainable economic development, the lack of active young female participation in the labour market is indeed a lost opportunity for governments and the private sector alike. Since there are few opportunities for young women both in the public and private sectors, governments, corporates and other key stakeholders in the region must collectively help to empower young women so that they can create their own economic opportunities through entrepreneurship.

Doing so will not only empower this generation of young women, but also unleash their potential to build high-value-added businesses that will innovate, grow and create jobs in the private sector and help spin off more companies in the future. Empowering women should no longer be seen as a secondary debate but an integral part of smart economic policies and a strategy to jump-start growth in the Arab economies.

A study by the World Bank on women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) debunks the myth that women-owned businesses are small and low-tech. It reveals that they are as fast-growing, technologically savvy and connected to global markets as companies owned by men. The study also indicates that women-owned businesses on average created more jobs than those owned by men and employed a higher share of skilled, professional and female employees in managerial positions. Moreover, more than 25% of the fastest-growing companies in Jordan, according to the Arabia500 ranking programme, are businesses led by women that are expanding regionally and globally. That is much higher than the percentage of women-led businesses on the comparable Inc. 500 ranking in the United States.

However, despite an investment climate that is relatively gender-unbiased, women entrepreneurship is not reaching its potential in the Arab world. Women entrepreneurs and, most importantly, young female entrepreneurs, are still faced with informal barriers, such as cultural perceptions and deep-rooted gender biases. They also have to contend with formal barriers: regulatory and legal challenges such as access to institutions; property ownership; and mobility in some Arab countries. Perhaps one of the significant barriers to boosting women entrepreneurship in the Arab region is the lack of gender-specific statistics on entrepreneurship and access to finance that could help to develop sound policies in this area.

The private sector has a clear, non-negotiable role in creating the right environment to support female young entrepreneurs by doing business with women-owned start-ups and mobilizing its resources to help entrepreneurs access knowledge, capital, networks and mentors. The private sector and the media can also present strong women role models to help to transform certain biased cultural perceptions and other informal barriers facing young women entrepreneurs.

Read more blogs on youth and employment.

Author: Ola Doudin is a Research & Projects Executive at Aramex , and a Global Shaper in the Amman Hub.

Image: University students during a graduation ceremony in Beirut REUTERS/Jamal Saidi