Iraq: changes needed to increase women's participation in the workplace, says World Bank

Iraq ranks one of the lowest globally for women’s workplace participation

A woman holding the Iraqi flag gestures while siting on the street as demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest in Baghdad, Iraq May 25, 2021. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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Lack of government backing and social norms are limiting access to the labour market for Iraqi women, a World Bank report found.

The biannual Iraq Economic Monitor report published on May 27 found the labour force participation rate for women in Iraq is among the lowest in the world, with only about one in 10 women economically active.

“Obstacles to entering and remaining in the labour market vary drastically for women from different socio-economic groups, and across critical turning points in women’s lives,” the report reads.

Women in the Middle East and North Africa as a whole are twice as likely to be in the labour force and four times as likely globally than those in Iraq alone, it reads.

As men’s participation is in line with global levels, standing at 74 per cent, it gives Iraq “one of the highest gender gaps in labour participation worldwide.”

“Weak labour demand, while affecting both women and men, disproportionately impacts women, as the few jobs that are created are in the oil-related, male-dominated industries,” the report said.

Boosting the participation of women could increase GDP per capita by almost 31 per cent, using the average woman’s income.

Although they are not sufficient to address the problems, some market interventions are needed to tackle the challenges, the World Bank recommended.

Among those interventions are to focus on skills training programmes to address gaps in knowledge and experience for women searching for work or seeking to grow in their employment and to improve access to affordable and quality childcare.

It also recommends providing incentives to the private sector to invest in areas that employ more women and to provide culturally acceptable income-generation options for women, including via enabling wider assistance for home-based businesses.

The Iraqi government also needs to address child marriage, inequality in property and inheritance rights compounded by traditional, patriarchal gender norms that assign men as protectors and providers, and women as caregivers.

“Revisions to laws and regulations are needed, and although addressing social norms can be challenging, some interventions aimed at correcting misperceptions can be effective in improving labour market participation of women in Iraq” the report read

The struggle for equality is a long way ahead, said activist Shatha Al Janabi.

"Women in Iraq face injustice in all aspects of their lives," Ms Al Janabi told The National.

“They face fierce competition from men who are preferable for jobs in both private and public sectors than women,” Ms Al Janabi said.

“Women, whether in private and public sectors or whether employed or run their own business, endure sexual harassment. Especially widows inside their workplace or when they visit government offices. Equality with men is absent,” she said.

Ms Al Jabani is calling for a unified law to protect the rights of women and children in all aspects of life.

“The life of the Iraqi woman is bleak,” she said. “Even inside parliament, the women’s representation is confined to the 25 per cent quota and their statements or work may be approved by their block leaders.”

Since early last year, Iraq’s economy has been reeling from fluctuating oil prices and Covid-19, forcing both the government and private sector to cut spending and stop hiring or laying off employees.

To cope with the economic crisis, Iraq has adopted a national reform programme to achieve sustainable medium-term growth through economic diversification and boosting private sector growth and private-sector job creation.

To address the fiscal pressures, the Iraqi government devalued the Iraqi dinar against the US dollar in December by about 20 per cent.

Iraq “stands at a crossroads as economic and fiscal rigidities have been accumulating and have reached a point where quick fixes are limited,” the report said.

Therefore, the economy is in need of a serious transformation if it is to create jobs and opportunities for its ever-growing youth, it said.