The economic participation of Iraqi women is among the lowest in the world

Noor Faraj

The economic participation of Iraqi women is among the lowest in the world. About 90% of them are out of the Green Zone.




By Noor Faraj

Tired of chess? What about "The Green Zone" did you win it before?

In order to win this game, you have to push Salima Mohammed inside the green Zone. But to do so, you need to understand the reality of economic participation of Iraqi women.

Suppose that there is a large circular wall holding Iraqi women who are willing to work. This circular wall contains another smaller wall that includes working women, and also contains a third, very small circular wall that includes women in decision-making positions.


Suppose that we have 100 women, only 13 of them have passed the big circle barrier, and only 8 of these 13 have access to the middle circle, while one of these 8 has managed to reach the small circle which has the capacity to allow more women To enter the big circle.

Now, you have 87 women standing just outside the three walls. In your opinion, which of these circular areas would you first expand to allow as many women as possible to enter the green circle?

Before you make your move, here are some facts of each of these walls.

First Wall: 9 out of 10 Iraqi women are not ready to work.

"I am responsible for seven children and a husband who is unable to work, sometimes I don't know how to feed them" said 50-year-old Salima Mohammed. However, when we asked her whether she was able to work or not, she seemed surprised that she was not sure how this question was relevant. She does not think that getting a job solves the problem!

  Women in Iraq do not work. Out of every 10 Iraqi women, nine are economically inactive*, while the proportion is almost inverse among men. Of every 10 Iraqi men, 8 are economically active.

According to the results of the survey conducted by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning for 2011, women who are ready to enter the labor market do not exceed 13% of the total Iraqi women, which is low even compared to other developing countries.  ILO statistics in 2019 indicate that Iraq occupies the third lowest for the proportion of economically active women among 189 countries.

This low percentage is due to several factors associated with the nature of Iraqi society and its perception of the role of women mainly. Women do not work simply because they are banned from work, according to a study by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) entitled "Violence Against Women in Iraq: Problems and Options." Three out of five older men disagree that women in their families have the right to work. Two out of five young people share the same view.

Nevertheless, Three out of five of young males respect women's right to work. In a society where young people make up more than half of the population.

However, the change in social convictions, and the recognition of women's right to work is often not enough to push women out of their houses. Though some women and men feel that women have a right to work, they feel the work should be in addition to, not instead of, household responsibilities.



Gender stereotypes of the women role, often overloud them with a long list of tasks inside the home. "I got a job as a housekeeper, but I refused it, because I have to pay attention to the children, I can't spend that long time outside the house," says Salima Mohammed, stressing that "raising children is her primary job" even though her children are aged between 10 and 20 Years old.

According to the International Labor Organization, Iraqi women do 86 percent of unpaid domestic care work and spend at least 6 hours a day caring for the home and children, compared to less than one hour spent by men to do the same kind of work. This makes Iraqi women poorer in the time needed to do paid work, as well as do it efficiently.



The price Iraq pays to keep women at home.

Let us return to Salima Mohammed, the average monthly income of a 9-member family is equivalent to $ 300 a month, which Salima receives from the state's social security salary, as well as donations from relatives. "When one of my children gets sick, I take him to the nurse who lives in our neighborhood," Salima said "I can't afford to take him to the hospital, because I don't have the transfer fee to the hospital. "

The picture is the same in many families headed by non-working women. While  the poverty rate in Iraq is 22.5%, the data compiled by the World Food Program (WFP) in 2016 shows that the worst affected by the high poverty rate are female-headed households. Four out of five women who are heads of household, meaning they are responsible for household income, are outside the labor force in most Iraqi provinces. As is the case with Salima Mohammed’s family, fewer than one in five male heads of household is economically inactive. These women are not looking for work even when they are required to support their families economically.



In the following parts of this story, we will talk about other walls in the game, the wall of working women, and the wall of women in decision-making positions. Until then, think carefully about the potential impact of an increase in the proportion of women in the workforce. If there are more women ready for work, will this necessarily lead to more women workers?

 The game is not over.


Less than 8 out of 100 Iraqi women are actually working. Why should you care? What would you do?

Second Wall: Few women workers, trapped in even fewer career options.

The first part of this story reviewed some facts about the reasons Iraqi women are not ready to work, but what is going on with women who want to work? Are they really getting a job? And why?

This part will explore the reality of the middle wall or the "Green Zone” and will talk more about working women.


While 13% of women are willing and able to work, fewer than 8% of them are able to find one. That means of every 13 women trying to get a job, only one will succeed. Here, Iraq sets another record in the absence of gender inequality, achieving the second lowest rank among 130 countries in the proportion of female employment, including in neighboring countries.

 According to the World Bank data although the overall rate of female employment in the Middle East rose from 15% to 16% between 2014 and 2017, Iraq has seen a decline in the proportion of female employment from 11% to 8% during the same period. This means that for every woman working in Iraq, there are two women working in the Middle East, and five women working in high-income countries.


According to the UNESCO report 2019"Assessment of the labor Market & Skills Analysis Iraq and Kurdistan Region-Iraq"  "60% of all female workers are employed by the government." And yet they do not constitute more than a third of the workforce in ministries and government institutions, "The reality of gender equality in ministries and institutions in Iraq" issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning indicates that  for every seven men, there are Three women work in government institutions.

 Moreover, even women who gets through the door into a job, many are driven back out and see the door slammed behind them! This time, the barrier is adverse working conditions. The 2012 "Situation Analysis of Gender Equality and the Employment of Women in Iraq" report by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning indicates that about half of women reported wage discrimination in the private sector, while a third reported the same for public sector jobs Salima turned down a job because, as she explained,, "In return for working all day, they would not give me more than 500 IQD."



Getting more women into the green zone with stable jobs would be an economic boost for the whole country, according to the International Labor Organization. If Iraq were to succeed in employing 25 more of every100 women, the gross domestic product could rise to $ 2,527 per capita in Iraq, .which means a total increase in GDP* of 73 billion dollars, an equivalent to a 11% growth in PPP*.

Few women working in even fewer types of jobs

However, low rates of female employment reflect not only a problem in the quantity of women in the labor market, but also the lack of diversity in the types of jobs available to women. Women tend to end up in just a few jobs that are deemed socially acceptable for women. A look at employment patterns in government ministries reflects deeply engrained job discrimination by sector with women overrepresented in public service ministries and virtually absent from industrial and security ministries.

 Data from the "gender reality in ministries and institutions in Iraq" report issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning reveals that in 2018 some ministries have a high percentage of female employees, such as the Central Bank, which employs 8 women for every 2 male employees, as well as the Ministry of Education, which employs 3 women for every 2 men, while men and women are equal in the Ministry of Finance. But on the other extreme, some ministries suffer from the very low percentage of women employees, especially the Ministry of Interior, where the percentage of women does not exceed 2%, and the Ministry of Oil, where the proportion of women does not exceed 10%.

 This sharp disparity in the distribution of women among different sectors can be illustrated by a simple comparison: for every 40 women working in the Central Bank, there are 30 women working in the Ministry of Education, compared to only five women working in the Ministry of Oil, and only one woman working in the Ministry of Interior.



Interviews with women employed in traditional and non-traditional female occupations suggest that, social factors play a role in this disparity. Women are expected to prefer careers such as education, office jobs, and often their families prefer jobs that minimize contact with men and are considered safer.

Women almost missing from the Ministry of Interior even though the ministry has more than half a million employees. The number of female officers does not exceed 350, says Amal Kabbashi, a civil activist working to grow the role of women in the Ministry of Interior:

 "The security establishment is inherently biased towards males, which does not allow women to participate," she explained.

 Shaima Ali Ibrahim, an employee of the Ministry, describes herself as "a lucky one" because her family was supportive of her decision to work in the police.

 "Community rejection did not have much impact on me, because my family was supportive when I joined the police force, but the real challenge was rejection from the work environment by male peers," she said." But we did not back down until they gradually accepted our presence on their side."

 The exclusion of women from certain jobs not only limits women’s career choices and earning potential, but also limits the services that sectors that include only men can offer. Tawfiq Hanoun, the manager of the community police department in Basra, said, "Women are particularly important in the work we do, since we work directly with families, and the presence of policewomen encourages women to go to the community police and talk about the problems they face, so we need to strengthen the presence of the female component in our departments."

 Women in the community are often afraid to go to police stations because of fear of the scandal, especially in cases of domestic violence, sexual harassment, or sexual blackmail. Therefore, they have difficulty in informing male police officers of such problems, while they feel more comfortable sharing such problems with women police officers who are well aware of the type of challenges faced by victims, not only in legal terms, but also in family, economic and psychological aspects.

  However, the police departments still lack female staff, which may prevent female victims from going to police stations and filing complaints. "The government has not done enough to overcome this problem" Amal Kabbashi said. "The government can allocate a certain percentage of the vacant posts in the ministry exclusively to women, but it has not yet taken this step" 

The Interior Ministry is not the only ministry that suffers from a shortage of women. But it illustrates how a shortage of female employees impacts the government’s ability to provide services to all citizens.

The last part of this article discusses the thicker wall, which nevertheless surrounds the most important area, it is the smallest yellow area for women in decision-making positions.

In your opinion, which is more influential in changing the reality of women's participation in the Iraqi economy? Ten women working in regular jobs or one woman in decision-making position?

The game is not over.





Less than 1% of women working in decision-making positions to lead the next generation into the workforce.

The previous parts of this story discussed the challenges women face in participating in the labor market and the challenges of finding jobs.

 This part will discuss the third wall that prevents women from reaching decision-making positions. What does the current situation look like? Why? And what can be done?


The third wall: very few women in decision-making positions.

In a challenging institutional environment, Major Shaima Ali Ibrahim The manager of the women's phylum of the Community Police Department in Baghdad stands out as one of less than 10 women leaders in the Ministry of Interior.

 Amal Kabbashi, however, believes that a real change is not possible when women are so outnumbered in leadership roles. "Only a handful of women in the rank of major still not enough to influence decision-making in the Interior Ministry" She explained.

The situation is not different in other sectors, as the number of women in decision-making positions is low in most public institutions.  According to "the reality of gender equality in ministries and institutions in Iraq" report, the percentage of women in the position of head manager does not exceed 7.3%, while the percentage of women in the position of assistant manager is 8.7%.

For every ten men managers in ministries and public institutions there is only one woman in the same position.

Even those ministries that employ a large proportion of women, do not necessarily give women access to managerial positions. For example, the education sector has a high rate of women employees. however, the percentage of female school principals does not exceed 30% of the total number of school principals. While men continue to control the decision-making processes by obtaining 70% of the school principal's seats.



However, women still more likely to have access to decision-making positions in the public sector when compared to their access to decision-making positions in the private sector. According to the World Bank, Enterprise Surveys, Iraq ranks the fifth-lowest among 139 countries in the proportion of companies with women share of ownership (7%). For every company with women share of ownership in Iraq, there are three similar companies in the Middle East and seven in high-income countries.

Iraq also ranks the third lowest among the 139 countries in the proportion of companies that put women in the position of general manager (2%). So, for every company employing a woman as general manager in Iraq, there are three similar companies in the Middle East countries and about nine in high-income countries. 

Women may be absent from decision-making positions due to a combination of qualification, social, and psychological challenges.



"The reality of gender in the ministries and state institutions in Iraq" report indicates that for every woman who holds a higher educational degree (master or doctorate) working in ministries and government institutions, three men holding equal educational degrees.

Social barriers also play a major role in hindering women employees from accessing decision-making positions. They suffer from a lack of time due to their unpaid care work at home HERE, which may hinder both academic and professional development. Also, In most cases they can't make their own decisions in their daily lives HERE. Even essential rights such as the right to travel, stay outdoors, and participate in various activities, always depend on getting permission from the men in the family, permission they usually do not get. 



          Moreover, there is the psychological impact of gender stereotypes, the stereotypical view of women towards themselves. Which usually promotes their internal image as an ineligible for leadership and decision-making person.

The scarcity of women in managerial positions prevents women's vision from contributing to decision-making and planning for the future. It also reduces the chances of achieving gender balance in both public and private institutions.

Now, would you take the risk to expand the micro-zone? It is quite challenging to start from there, as well as it is quite rewarding. If you chose to start from there, you will find some allies. Since 2015 this area has known some experienced players who worked on building women's capacity to create their jobs and their managerial positions. A series of pilot programs targeted Iraqi youth (males & females), aimed at capacity building in entrepreneurship, have attracted an observable number of Iraqi young women and trained them to start their businesses.

We have winners!

 In the last part of this story, you will have the opportunity to discover their moves, also you will have the opportunity to undo yours in case you changed your mind. You always will.




How did Entrepreneurship training convince hundreds of young women to let the public sector-dream go and think about starting their own start-ups instead?

The key word is: Empathy.

While the previous parts focused on analyzing the complexity of the problem/game, this part will focus on solutions. As we promised, you will get to meet some winners.

Since 2014, a series of pilot programs aimed at empowering youth in entrepreneurship have attracted a good number of Iraqi young women and trained them to start their own businesses.

Iraq's development programs are making efforts to push the new generation to innovate their own startups, they are looking at the Entrepreneurship in the private sector as an integrated package of solutions to the problems that Iraq economy is dealing with. Aaron Bartnick explained this in his report "obstacles and opportunities for entrepreneurship in Iraq & the Kurdistan region" published by The Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) in 2017


"The economy of the KRI and of Iraq is disproportionately driven by the public sector. (…) However, problems with over-reliance on public sector employment have been exposed by the economic downturn that has gripped the region since 2014."



This problem can be overcome by promoting small and medium-sized entrepreneurship, as (IRIS) study emphasizes that "These SMEs account for over half of existing jobs worldwide and create jobs at more than twice the rate of more established companies. They are driving innovation by generating new ideas, new products, and creating new businesses, which is why the World Bank has cited entrepreneurship as “a key driver of growth and development".

Innovation for Development one of UNDP projects in Iraq aimed to promote awareness of Entrepreneurship among the Iraqi youth. According to Dhafer Hassan the project manager, this project "resulted in building an active community around innovation and entrepreneurship"


Innovation for Development manages to reach over 3000 youth participants with around 40% of female participation.



So how did they did do it? How did they convince hundreds of young women to join their activities?

The keyword: Empathy.

The training experience designed by the Innovation team reflects a deep understanding of the nature of challenges Iraqi women are dealing with in participating in such activities. In my observation, a business-related training with a smart strategy proved to be more effective in promoting gender equality than a gender equality-centered training itself.

“We do a lot to facilitate female participation, through Social media we try to reflect female active participation to encourage others, also we do select the training venues carefully to ensure safe training environment, and make sure that the training environment is youthful and friendly to all participants, therefore they will have a positive experience to talk about to their peers," said Hassan.

Furthermore, reaching out to female participants may require more initiative to overcome social barriers that prevent women from both empowerment and employment opportunities, especially in closed social environments that  may require  tailor-made solutions to each situation, as Hassan explained "Sometimes we agree to invite other family members to our events (a mother or a brother), and I do personally call or answer calls of parents asking for more details regarding the participation of their daughters"


Although this kind of project is fighting hard, the social barriers, however, still fighting back. During the periods of project activity from 2015 to 2019 the rate of female participation in the program varied between different Iraqi governorates. Hassan explained "Highest participation is usually from Baghdad (male and female)- mainly because it is the capital, more open and has a large population," While the rate of participation decreases significantly in other areas, most notably in Muthana, Hassan explained: "In our current application we have 2,100 applicants, only 21 of them are from Muthana, only 1 female among those 21. This is due to the level of awareness and activities in this city"

Then what happened? Did women keep working on their businesses and lived happily after?


Although the result of these efforts appears to be generally satisfactory, they still have some good, bad and ugly aspects, because when we asked Hassan whether women are doing well in their start-ups compared to men, he told us an answer we didn't expect and attributed it to reasons we didn't expect as well!

"In some aspects, they are doing better than men because some females are showing higher commitment and dedication, also the family support is a key factor to their success, but they are doing better than men especially because their visibility is easier, which is not always a good thing" He adds " The visibility females may get  because of their start-ups usually increases their chances to get better jobs in other institutions (mainly companies), which means  they end up closing their start-ups, especially with the family and community pressure."

In short, women who are already developing their own businesses get a lot of (beginner's luck) because the scarcity of women in the labor market makes it easier for them to emerge excellence, but this rapid visibility leads them to leave their startups, As a result, we have more women working in the private sector but hardly a few of them remains in the zone of women-led businesses, which reduce their chances to be in the top administrative positions in the institutions of the future.


After all, you can target the largest zone, increase the number of women willing to work and qualify them to work in sectors that require female labor. As well as you can target the smallest zone and increase the number of women in senior positions, who would influence employment policies and reshape the work environment to be suitable for women.


The methods may vary, the numbers may vary. What is certain is that more women need to get a job to support themselves, their families, and their local community.

As you can see, this is a tricky game. You, me, and policymakers will have to play it - very seriously - from now on.


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