Covid-19 blow to female workforce in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon

The World Bank calls for action to promote stronger economic growth and close gender gaps

Women sew protective suits, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a factory in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq June 10, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

The exceptionally low employment of women in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon will become worse with the Covid-19 pandemic and steps must be taken to improve the situation, the World Bank said.

Less than 15 per cent of women are employed in Iraq and Jordan, while only 26 per cent are part of the workforce in Lebanon, according to the Washington lender’s latest report on the three countries.

Workforce participation rates in these three “Mashreq” countries were 25 to 35 percentage points below the international average, given their per capita gross domestic product. Apart from Syria and Yemen, Iraq and Jordan have some of the lowest rates in the world.

To make matters worse, women will probably be affected disproportionally by the effects of the virus on the labour market, the report said.

“Women will probably experience a significant burden on their time, given their [several] care responsibilities as school closures and confinement measures are adopted, possibly leading to reductions in working time and [a] permanent exit from the labour market among those who currently participate.”

The International Monetary Fund downgraded its forecast for the world economy and said it would contract by 4.9 per cent this year due a more severe fallout caused by the virus.

The fund said the steep decline in economic activity had led to “a catastrophic hit” to the world’s labour market.

Women tend to work in sectors that have been hit particularly hard, such as the service sector, and in more vulnerable forms of employment such as part-time or informal work, the World Bank report said.

The World Bank said these factors exclude them from formal social protection measures. They will also be affected in areas where societal attitudes give men a labour market advantage when jobs are hard to come by.

Women in the Mashreq countries who are willing to participate in the workforce face high unemployment rates and tend to be paid less for similar work.

Jordan's female unemployment rate, at about 25 per cent, is about double that of men.

The gender wage gap for women and men working similar jobs with similar education and experience is about 17 per cent in Jordan’s private sector and 18 per cent and 22 per cent for Iraq and Lebanon, respectively.

The three governments have said they plan to increase women’s workforce participation rates by 5 percentage points in Iraq and Lebanon and 9 percentage points in Jordan by 2025.

If the targets are met and maintained for a decade, annual economic growth would increase by 1.6 percentage points in Iraq, 2.5 percentage points in Jordan, and 1.1 percentage points in Lebanon by 2035, the report said.