While Iraqi families are usually led by men, studies have shown that those with women in charge are more likely to be poor than others. According to the United Nations Fund for Women, women-led families that do not receive remittances from their relatives (usually men) have stronger poverty rates than men-led ones. Women are also more vulnerable to unemployment, cuts in social and welfare spending, as well as to food insecurity due to lower levels of total income. 

Also according to a study conducted by the World Bank in 2007, 22.7% of Iraqi families live under the poverty line, and women face even greater difficulties, as the average income of families headed by women is 15-25% lower than that of families headed by men.

“To give birth and raise children”

Lina Ali is a mother of two in her early thirties. She separated from her husband and works in the field of women’s rights in the Iraq Mothers’ Campaign. This Campaign aims at catering for nearly 2 million divorced and widowed women who suffer from movement restrictions and are prevented from working by their relatives while the government remains inactive.

With a heartbroken voice filled with despair, Lina spoke to The Red Line of her society, which she characterized as “patriarchal with outdated societal customs, causing many women to suffer from psychological complexes and pushed some of them to flee their houses or to commit suicide”. Lina noted that society considers women to be second-class citizens and weaker than men due to their physical constitution. In Iraq, a woman’s main purpose is to give birth and raise children only. This social condition left most of them without any financial independence.

In a similar stance, the spokesman for the Ministry of Planning, Abdul-Zahra Al-Hindawi, told The Red Line that traditional Iraqi values have deprived many women of employment opportunities as they do not have the same education opportunities as men. “While Illiteracy is around 8% among men, it rises to 17-20% with women,” he stated.

Mr. Al-Hindawi stressed that the academic level greatly impacts job opportunities. The higher the education is, the greater the job opportunities and good salaries are.” The spokesman also pointed out that “the society’s view of women as weak and less capable of performing tasks prompted many families to prevent them from engaging in work even if some opportunity arose. This greatly affected the economic independence of women”, he added.

Yet, some women, such as Lina, have taken things in their own hands and challenge this societal discrimination: “I consider myself a case of rebellion against society because I am a divorced woman. I own and handle my personal project even though I suffered from blackmailing, pressures and harassment in most of the workplaces where I was employed because I am a divorced woman”.

Mrs. Ali suffered from violence during her marriage which prompted her to leave her job and accept financial assistance from her family in the past. But her eagerness to emancipate herself from patriarchy gave her the will to move on and find a new source of income. “Currently, I have two jobs, as the judicial system did not guarantee my children sufficient alimony to meet all their needs after my divorce,” she explained.

A report by the Iraq Knowledge Network reveals that only 13% of females in Iraq aged 15 years and over participate in the labor force, compared to 72% of males.

Millions of Iraqi women do not get counted in this statistic because they do not seek work at all. Several sources indicate that they often do not get the choice to work. It is noteworthy that Iraq had a large female workforce in the sixties and seventies. The previous regime led by Saddam Hussein had actually sought to rely on this workforce in the eighties.

Reasons for the women’s situation’s decline

During the war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988), the former regime enacted many laws such as the Unified Labor Law, which aimed at equalizing women and men’s access to employment as well as narrowing the gender gap in the Iraqi economy. This is partly due to the fact that during major wars, women were taking the place of Iraqi soldiers on active duty in factories, government agencies and small businesses. Nevertheless, in the 1990s and 2000s, Iraq not only went through wars and internal unrest, but also an unprecedented economic embargo doubled by sectarian conflicts that led to a reversal of the progressivist trends initiated in the previous decades.

According to what the UNDP report revealed, the decline in women’s financial earnings is due to the traditional division of labor despite the relatively strong participation of the female workforce in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, there are still certain traditional elements in Iraqi society that maintain the assumption that women should only work from home while men can work outside. This largely affected the participation rates of Iraqi women in the economy.

As a result, Iraqi women gradually lost the rights they had gained in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This fact has been even further reinforced by laws such as the Iraqi income tax law that  provide additional deductions of taxes for married men, assuming that he is the head of the family. While widows and divorced women also benefit from this law, other women aren’t as lucky. There is also the unified labor law prohibiting women from working in the evenings and working overtime when they are pregnant. In addition to that, private sector employers discriminate against women as they prefer not to hire female employees because of their assumed responsibilities towards their families and children. 

Mrs. Al-Yassar is in her late twenties and has one daughter. She is the victim of society’s view toward divorced women. 

She struggled a lot to get a job considering her special social situation: “I had to forcibly leave my previous job because of my husband, and after the divorce phase I suffered from a bad financial decline on a personal level.”, she told The Red Line. 

Al-Yassar continues: “My child is in my custody, the prices increase and the Corona pandemic narrowed my monthly income,” noting that she established her own project after her separation. She is currently doing two jobs in order to provide a decent life for herself and her child. She pointed out that there is a general problem in Iraq concerning the recruitment of divorced women because of their social status.

Member of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, Yusra Rajab, told The Red Line that the vast difference in financial returns between men and women and the decline in the material situation of women can be explained by series of factors. “The first is the society’s view that women cannot run businesses. Second is the lack of adoption of anti-domestic violence laws that guarantee  freedom of women and their right to choose their work.”

Mrs. Rajab pointed out that the lack of legal equality between men and women and the weakness of legal reform for their participation in the labor force widened the wage gap between them at a professional level. “Some political forces in the Iraqi parliament are resisting the adoption of laws supporting women in the labor market.”, she claimed.

The member of the Parliament also indicated that the poor levels of education among females and the irrational societal bias against their employment, correlated to male favoritism in employment opportunities led to high unemployment rates among women. “This situation is further exacerbated by early marriage, violence and security conditions”, she said, before adding: “although women constitute 49% of society’s proportion, the rate of their economic activity is as low as 13.9 of the total productive category.”

In 2018, the Central Statistical Organization (CSO), affiliated to the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, indicated that the unemployment rate among young women in Iraq reached 56%, noting that “the unemployment rate among young (between 15 to 29 years old) amounted to 22.6%” The organization also recorded tha the unemployment among males for this category only amounts to 18.1%.

Finally, the CSO revealed that “the rate of youth participation in the labor force reached 36.1%,” noting that “young males constituted 61.6% compared to 8.8% for young females.”

Gender gap in employment opportunities

According to the human development statistics for 2018, included in the Gender report, Iraq has a significant gender gap regarding social and economic benefits as well as for distribution of resources. Statistics clearly indicate that women are deprived of equal qualification opportunities and access to public jobs, including senior jobs in State institutions. This leads to the reduction of their financial resources from budgets, as the percentage of what they obtain from the total governmental expenditure does not exceed 28 percent.

Expert in economic affairs, Salam Sumaisem, pointed out to The Red Line that opportunities available to men are simply not available to women, not only at the level of high income jobs, but even for jobs with lower revenues. “For example, businesswomen are not able to benefit from tenders which men can access. This means that women get less opportunities than them.”

Mr. Sumaisem also noted that women discrimination in working opportunities increased rates of poverty, and undermined their possibility of owning even small business projects.”

Data produced by the Ministry of Interior recorded 4712 women suffering from physical violence for the year 2017. In comparison, the year 2016, rates of physical violence targeting women amounted to 5419. Similarly, rates of sexual violence 2017 reached 187 while they reached 169 in 2016. Nonetheless, these numbers are highly underrated as many cases of gender based violence are never reported to local authorities. 

In her book entitled “Iraq, the unstructured work”, which is a survey on poverty in Iraq, national accountancy expert Hana Abdul-Jabbar Salih stated that the Iraqi work force reached 9 million people in 2014. This gives a rate of men participation in the workforce of 84.6%, while the percentage of women’s participation was 15.4% that year. This explains the huge gap between men and women unemployment in Iraq.

Mrs. Hana Adwar is an activist and member of the Board of Trustees of the Al-Amal Association, told the Red Line that “women suffer from a lack of financial returns due to the social stigma within society.”

Mrs. Adwar also pointed out that Iraq suffers from the absence of a minimum wage law. “It is difficult to determine whether equal wages are paid to both men and women for the same work. Furthermore, several cases of discrimination against women regarding promotions, management, inequality of treatment and pay in the private sector have been noticed. Discrimination is also linked to maternal leave: men are considered more reliable because they rarely ask for leaves or special schedules based on childcare and other needs.”

The rate of economic activity in Iraq reached 42.8% according to the data of the Poverty Monitoring and Evaluation Survey in Iraq for 2017. this year, women showed the lowest percentage in economic activity compared to men: only 12.6 %, while the percentage of males was 72.7%.

According to economic specialists, the economic improvement of women’s conditions in Iraq should be based on real government reforms, such as obligating families to educate women in the same way as men while abandoning the prevailing conservative traditions limiting, early marriage, pushing the development of the private sector and enacting adequate laws that could protect women on a social and economic level.

VIAFadia Hekmat