Iraq: Empowered women = An Empowered nation

Raya Abdul Gulal writes for

Raya Abu Gulal writes for

Lawyer Raya Abu Gulal, co-founder of the Women Lawyers Group Middle East and committee member of the International Women Business Group (Abu Dhabi), shares a legal perspective of why integrating Women into the Iraqi Economy is vital to growth.

Since the 1920s Iraqi women have participated in the Iraq’s economy. From the late 1950s onwards women of our country have enjoyed fundamental women’s rights. This ‘golden era’ of support and growth saw Iraqi women at the forefront of a global ‘sisterhood’ of highly educated and professional women. For example, Aswa Zahawi, a leading Iraqi women rights activist founded the Society for Women’s Renaissance in 1923. This organisation went on to publish ‘Leila’, a journal promoting education and employment rights for women. Political changes were also made; 1979 saw the Iraqi constitution declaring social equality between men and women to be a legally binding concept. This meant that women were able to study and work alongside men without discrimination.

This kind of support led to women’s participation in Iraq’s economy which, in turn, meant that Iraq witnessed rapid economic growth in the ensuing decades.  It is worth noting that prior to the 2003 Iraqi women formed at least 35% of the working population.

International sanctions in the 1990s and then the 2003 war led to the fall in women’s rights; plummeting employment figures signifying their withdrawal from the labour market. Over the last 11 years the status of women has deteriorated year on year, with even the most fundamental rights – including security, salaries, and basic allowances – being syphoned away. Despite assistance and efforts by NGOs, the International community and multilateral development agencies to protect women rights and their integration in Iraq’s economy, today the majority of Iraqi women are not economically empowered and remain unemployed.

Constitutionally, women have lost a number of key rights. Under the current Iraqi constitution women enjoy equal rights to employment (without discrimination) however, certain clauses under Iraqi laws such as the Penal and Family code remain discriminatory. These define women’s economic choices.

According to a UN report published in 2013 only 18% of women participate in the labour force, compared to 81% of men. This is a low figure compared to other countries in the region. Women with lower educational levels are more likely to be outside the labour force. Furthermore, there are an estimated one to three million widows and single female heads of household in Iraq. One in ten households in Baghdad is headed by a woman.

In emerging economies such as Iraq, rapid economic development makes it necessary to optimize all available human resources; underutilizing women in the workforce is simply not an acceptable option. It is essential therefore that the economic road map of any government includes women. An inclusive economy which represents all of the Iraqi population, not just the ‘male’ 45%, is not just a viable economy, it is a successful economy. A recent report published by PwC, referencing women’s economic empowerment policies in other countries, has cited that ensuing economic growth is coupled with other benefits also. These include an easing of corruption and violence as well as the promotion of greater environmental sustainability.

To increase Iraqi women economic opportunities, governments, institutions and the private sector must work together to create organi

zations that support economic programs for women. There needs to be a focus on promoting education, raising community awareness, enhancing legal protection and allocating resources.  Private sector support is vital as International companies entering into Iraq will expect and support progressive laws that protect working women.

We need access to more and better jobs, a business climate that supports us as entrepreneurs or employees and a financial sector that gives us access to financial support.

Finally, It is also important to note that a sustainable country cannot be built if women are not economically empowered, nor can any stable society.  Iraq cannot ignore simply half of its population!

To see Raya’s previous feature, see this link. You can find the Arabic of this feature here.

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