A recently published report says women in the Middle East and North Africa are at a profound disadvantage in practically every sector of society.  In Washington this week, experts discussed some of the problems affecting women in these predominantly Muslim countries, as well as some of the initiatives being undertaken to change their status.

Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that monitors political rights and civil liberties around the world, produced the report that looked at women's rights in 16 countries and the Palestinian territories.

It found that education levels for girls and young women have improved and employment opportunities are expanding, but not enough. The report also says entrenched societal structures continue to hold women back in many areas.

Alina Romanowski is the director of the Middle East Partnership Initiative at the State Department, which funded the report.  She says the United States is focused on empowering women economically, politically and legally, and also improving their access to education.

"There really is unequal legal status in the national and citizenship laws of these countries,? she noted.  ?There is definite discrimination in the workplace, once you get into the workplace. There is, critically, a lack of information and places where women have a voice in this debate."

Mahnaz Afkhami runs the Women's Learning Partnership, a non-governmental organization that provides leadership training to women in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  She says a perceptible change in attitude toward women and the influence they can have in society is evolving in predominantly Muslim countries.

?What is important, and has actually been recognized across the board in Muslim majority countries, is the interconnection between democracy and development and women's participation.  And that level of awareness has already happened,? she said.

But the experts agree that recognition is not enough. They say women in the Middle East and North Africa need a larger political voice.  Ms. Romanowski of the State Department said the United States is trying to increase the training and leadership skills women need to become elected officials.

"You've got to get women elected, whether they are at the municipal or national level, and we've got to support the ability of women to take a much better participatory role," Ms. Romanowski added.

The panel agreed that to change the status of women in these countries, efforts must be made from the grassroots level up to the leadership.