Countries around the world have started preparations for the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family (2014). Governments, civil societies, academic and private sectors as well as national, international and regional groups of family experts, practitioners and researchers have begun addressing the role of families in development, assessing recent trends in family policy development, sharing good practices in family policy making and reviewing challenges faced by families worldwide in order to recommend solutions that are threatening the safety of families today. The findings and recommendations of these experts will be considered a vital guide to designing an effective family policy.
As part of the preparations for the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family, the Doha International Family Institute will bring together 14 prominent experts from around the region to discuss policies and measures for protecting the Arab family from poverty through employment, social integration and inter-generational solidarity.
A United Nations report indicates that a significant proportion of the Arab population lives on $1.25 to $2.75 per day, therefore any small shock to disposable income or income distribution can produce a significant impact on poverty in the region.
Youth unemployment continues to be a major challenge in many Arab countries. According to the UN report, youth unemployment stood at 24 percent at 2009, which is more than double the global average of 11.9 percent, while the share of youth among unemployed populations was over 50 percent for most Arab countries. Millions of jobs will need to be created in the next five to seven years in order to absorb young entrants to the labor force who will otherwise face an empty future of social exclusion.
Noor Al-Malki Al-Jehani, Executive Director of Doha International Family Institute, stated that there is a need to address the basic human needs of the Arab family which includes nutrition, health, water and sanitation, housing and access to education and employment in order to achieve the social integration of families living in poverty. He said to eliminate poverty it is crucial to provide better work opportunities and to cater to the marginalized population that includes the young, the elderly, women and persons with disabilities.
Meanwhile, according to ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller (a major PR consultancy in MENA) in its fifth annual Arab Youth Survey released recently, rising living costs remain the number one concern of Arab youth, with 62 percent saying they are “very concerned” about the issue.
Ambareen Musa, founder of Souqalmal.com, a Middle Eastern price comparison website, emphasized the importance of educating Saudi youth on how to save and how to budget. A recent survey by Souqalmal.com indicates that Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations in the world, that the majority of Saudis save less than 10 percent of their monthly income, and that six out of 10 Saudis are putting less than 10 percent of their monthly salaries into savings. Out of those, two-thirds claim they do not save anything, and 20 percent claim they don’t know how to save.
A study was conducted in Madinah by social workers Dr. Muhammad Al-Dhabyani and Adel Al-Oufi who reported that 60 percent of the divorce cases that occur early on in marital life are due to financial problems. The two representatives of the charitable organization in Madinah called Osraty (My Family) said that studies indicate that the number one cause of marital dispute is financial burdens and inadequate wages earned by the husband. The researchers noted that the root of the problem was not simply the husband’s low income, but more importantly the lack of the couple’s knowledge on how to manage and budget their spending wisely. Researchers emphasize the need for awareness programs to educate newlyweds about spending and saving money and providing them with a basic introduction to economics.
Divorce has been on the rise in the Kingdom, which is a threatening phenomenon that is a danger to the social fabric, increasing the number of cases of juvenile delinquency, drug abuse and violence. This year alone, courts in different regions of the Kingdom have registered 25,000 divorce cases out of 120,000 recorded marriage licenses.
Meanwhile, according to the 2013 Bayt.com MENA Salary Survey, salaries in Saudi Arabia are not keeping pace with the rising cost of living. Also according to Sundip Chahal, CEO, YouGov, employees across the MENA region have expressed an overall dissatisfaction with their wages and the rising cost of living, and there are indictions that if the situation is not addressed, there could be potential economic difficulties in the coming years.
Economists stress that the high cost of living and inflation make it difficult for single-income families to provide the basic needs for the average family living in Saudi Arabia today. The participation of women in the workforce is no longer a luxury; it has become an economic necessity. Unfortunately, women represent only 16 percent of the total workforce, which reflects a very high unemployment rate among women.
Another burning issue is the housing problem which has been left unsolved for a long time. It represents a national challenge that will be difficult to address due to the speed at which the Kingdom’s population is growing. Expanding public services to meet the demands of the growing population will continue to be a major challenge that will require more serious attention. According to recent statistics, only 30 percent of Saudis own homes.
Family experts, economists and social scientists conclude that the Arab world suffers from social disintegration, unemployment, low wages and poverty, which is largely due to the lack of opportunities and inadequate capabilities that continue to threaten the future of Arab families. Saudi researchers need to be more involved in the preparations for the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family in 2014 in order to empower our families and provide material and non-material care to support family members today. The exchange between global experts can hopefully provide us with better direction and a more promising future for our families.
— Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.