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"I dream of opening a shop on the main street of town": Exploring links between gender, economic empowerment and violence against women in Iraq

Posted on 10 Dec 2021

Today, December 10th, marks both Human Rights Day and the end of the thirtieth annual 16 Days of Activism campaign. Every year, the period from November 25th to this date is a dedicated time for raising awareness on – and strengthening efforts towards addressing – violence against women and girls (VAWG) and gender inequality.  

Significant progress has been made in the last thirty years, but there is still a long way to go. Too many women and girls are exposed to violence, including in Iraq, where it remains pervasive. Violence against women and girls is a grave human rights abuse deserving more action and investment to prevent and respond to it and its underlying causes. DRC is a signatory to the Global Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence (GBV), which recognizes that gender inequality is both a cause and consequence of VAWG. Addressing inequalities between women, men, girls and boys and the gender norms and perceptions underlying them must be at the center of our collective calls and actions. This includes promoting women’s economic empowerment which can, over time, contribute to eliminating VAWG.  

Through its experience delivering economic recovery interventions in Iraq, DRC has – among other activities – been supporting women with cash assistance to help them overcome shocks or meet immediate needs, engaging them in work opportunities to provide short-term income and help them break into the labor market, and providing grants to support them to start and run their own small business. Global experience shows that – when properly designed – initiatives aimed at supporting women’s economic empowerment are important components to helping them escape violence in the home and the community.

Violence against women and girls in Iraq remains prevalent and widespread.

In Iraq, gender norms and perceptions, a struggling economic situation, conflict and displacement have resulted in significant inequality between men and women. Despite policies and ongoing initiatives aimed at advancing gender equality – initiated by the Government, civil society, and international actors – much more needs to be done to address inequalities between men and women, girls and boys in the country.

Gender inequality can often manifest into violence, particularly against women and girls. Recent, reliable statistics on the prevalence of VAWG in Iraq are limited, however it is understood to be widespread. Displacement and disability can also increase women and girls’ risk of being exposed to violence. On top of this, humanitarian assessments have shown that COVID-19 has resulted in an increase of violence against women and girls in many areas, particularly in domestic violence, though the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on VAWG and gender equality in Iraq are not well understood.

At the same time, access to services to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls remains limited, including because of insufficient funding, lack of awareness, gaps in coordination across sectors and actors, and lengthy and time-consuming processes for official reporting and response. Barriers and challenges accessing pathways that do exist – including fear of revenge, punishment and/or social stigma as well as a lack of confidence in or awareness of services – means that these services remain underutilized and incidents of violence against women and girls remain significantly underreported.

The Iraqi Constitution guarantees equality to all and prohibits discrimination based on gender, including prohibition on all forms of violence in private and public spaces. However, national legislation contains several gaps in protections against violence against women and girls and for survivors – and in some cases even reinforces harmful gender norms and assumptions that perpetuate this violence. For example, while the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a law on domestic violence,[v] at the federal level there is no legislation specifically defining, prohibiting and providing protections for victims of domestic violence. The amendment and adoption of this legislation has been a key call of women rights actors. Still, the legal framework for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq also has gaps; for example, at both the regional and federal level a perpetrator accused or convicted of rape can marry the victim to avoid punishment – something that the victim may feel or be pressured to do to avoid stigma.

DRC has been supporting women with grants to help expand their business in Diyala Governorate. Salma’s story highlights how displacement, disability and gender can interact to increase vulnerability.

DRC has been supporting women with grants to help expand their business in Diyala Governorate. Salma’s story highlights how displacement, disability and gender can interact to increase vulnerability.

Statistics Snapshot – Violence against women and girls in Iraq

  • According to the 2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview, there are 1.3 million people at risk of gender-based violence in Iraq. 75% of them are women and adolescent girls.
  • Perceptions on VAWG greatly by location; for example, in research by Oxfam from July 2021, over four in ten respondents in Diyala Governorate declared there is no justification for a husband to be violent with his wife, compared to only one in ten in Anbar Governorate.
  • While child marriage rates in the Middle East have declined considerably over the past 25 years, progress has slowed significantly in the past decade. Some 24% of girls in Iraq are married before the age of 18.

Women’s economic participation remains low.

Globally, women’s unequal access to economic and employment opportunities are a major factor in perpetuating cycles of violence, exploitation and abuse. In Iraq, despite making up half the population in the country, women and girls are underrepresented in the workforce and in education. Multiple reports have also highlighted that the types of work women can engage in are less diverse than men’s because of gender perceptions and norms which limit their experience and skills development or in some cases bar them – directly or implicitly – from certain jobs. Displacement affected women and women with disabilities also face increased barriers to accessing decent livelihood opportunities. This is significant as millions were displaced over the course of the conflict with the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and around 15% of the population has a disability – one of the largest populations of persons with disabilities in the world.

We know that when women work, economies grow and communities are more likely to prosper. Women’s economic empowerment is also closely linked to the fulfilment of other human rights, including increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in decision-making at all levels. Increasing women and girls’ educational attainment also contributes to more inclusive economic engagement, including through vocational training and upskilling that helps better equip and qualify them for more jobs. For example, DRC has increased women’s participation in technical education, upskilling and business training in our programs – including in Salah al-Din Governorate, where community committees – made up of men and women from the area – have been closely engaged to help mobilize women for these opportunities.

A number of government policies and plans have been developed with the aim of promoting gender equality, many of which include references and strategies to address women’s right to work and links between this and violence. A priority for the newly formed government should be investment in the implementation of these plans, including the new Women’s Economic Empowerment Plan for 2021-2022

Statistics Snapshot – Women’s economic participation in Iraq

  • While women and girls make up half of the population of Iraq, in 2020 only 10.6% of the employed population in Iraq was female.
  • One in every ten households in Iraq are also headed by women, and 80% of these heads are widows. Estimates suggest a quarter of internally-displaced female-headed households rely on (frequently small) pensions – their own or that of their deceased husband) – as their main source of income, and a further 22% rely on (frequently inconsistent and low-revenue) informal commerce.
  • The gap in out-of-school rates between girls and boys rises with education level: at the primary level, some 6% of girls are out-of-school compared to 7% of boys, which increases to 28% of girls and 15% of boys at the lower secondary and 46% of girls and 35% of boys at upper secondary levels.

At the same time, women’s economic inclusion interacts closely with violence against women.

Beliefs and perceptions surrounding women’s economic inclusion may expose them to risks of violence through their engagement, including stigmatization, harassment, and exclusion – especially in ‘non-traditional’ sectors or roles. Women in Iraq have also reported instances of harassment and sexual abuse while travelling to work or at the workplace. The risks of furthering violence against women should therefore be closely considered in the design and implementation of livelihood programming, including awareness of and linkages to associated service referrals for responding to violence against women and girls. For example, DRC’s business grants often support women to start businesses adjacent to or inside their homes, recognizing that doing so outside the home – like, for example, on the main street of town – can be both a source of stigma and a challenge alongside heavy care burdens. With careful risk assessment, these types of gender considerations could be built upon and furthered to expand the ways in which women can engage in work and include activities in programming that aim to address barriers to this engagement.

It is also important to note that women and girls in Iraq overwhelmingly bear the burden of unpaid care work in their homes. This can make their access to livelihoods more challenging, and also means that women who do engage in economic activity will face a double burden of juggling both paid and unpaid work. These dynamics must be recognized and considered in programming supporting women’s economic empowerment. For example, in DRC’s Cash for Work programming in Diyala and Salah al-Din Governorates, women worked reduced hours for the same pay, so that they could balance their work with their responsibilities at home. DRC teams closely engaged with the men participating in the project so they understood and accepted the reasons for these project adaptations.

On the other hand, learning also suggests that women’s economic inclusion can be an entry-point to addressing violence against women. Research by the Cash and Livelihoods Consortium for Iraq found that livelihood programming can help broaden the accepted roles for women in paid work, and that when women earn an income their feelings of self-esteem, safety and perceived harmony of relationships at home improve. The importance of economic empowerment for addressing VAWG is also reflected in community perceptions: according to National Protection Cluster monitoring, the lack of independent access to livelihoods and finance is seen by communities as the main issue affecting women and girls in terms of safety, wellbeing and access to services and opportunities. Future studies should seek to further explore the links between violence against women and women’s economic empowerment in Iraq, so that interventions are better able to address and react to these dynamics.

Livelihood activities can also create safe spaces to help women cope with difficulties and provide opportunities for engagement outside of the home. Women engaged in DRC’s economic recovery programming have spoken strongly about the social space created by and the supportive relationships they built through their participation in these activities. This is supported by the research by Cash and Livelihoods Consortium for Iraq, which highlighted that “building and strengthening relationships between women is a key precondition for women to organize as a collective for change, provides valuable individual psycho-social benefits, and offers the opportunity for collective action across ethnic, tribe or political divisions.” And while this speaks to more informal collective action and organization, it should be noted that more attention is also needed towards the inclusion of women in unions, cooperatives and associations to increase their voices – though this is challenging in general in Iraq.

Recognizing that women know best what the challenges and limitations to their economic participation are – as well as the opportunities to promote their economic empowerment – they should be closely consulted and engaged in program design and implementation to ensure interventions are inclusive, safe, and contextually relevant. One channel for this could be, for example, through previously established community committees.

DRC has been engaging women in cash for work activities in Diyala Governorate which support them with short-term income as well as benefit the community, like the canal clearance pictured above. Sara, who participated in the project, says that one of the most valuable impacts of the activities has been the connection she has made with other women.

DRC has been engaging women in cash for work activities in Diyala Governorate which support them with short-term income as well as benefit the community, like the canal clearance pictured above. Sara, who participated in the project, says that one of the most valuable impacts of the activities has been the connection she has made with other women.

Displacement also interacts with VAWG and women’s economic participation.

Conflict in Iraq has been a significant driver for gender-based violence, including killings, sexual violence, forced marriages and child marriages. DRC’s experience globally has shown that experience of conflict-driven displacement is closely interlinked with exposure to violence for women and girls. Poverty – a risk factor in exposure to gender-based violence – also disproportionately affects displacement affected women and girls. However, the links between displacement – including return and (re)integration – and VAWG in Iraq are poorly understood, and should be further explored and assessed to inform interventions.

There are also close links between displacement and women’s economic participation in Iraq. Research with displaced women in the KRI has shown that exposure to displacement can increase the relative number of women who engage in livelihood activities. This could be because of a broadening of accepted gender roles due to exposure to different cultures as a result of their movement. It could also be by necessity, where women or girls need to earn an income because of increased poverty or vulnerability caused by their displacement. So while experiences of displacement can provide entry-points to support women’s economic empowerment, it’s not clear whether these shifts translate into longer-term changes in perceptions, and if they are maintained after they return.

DRC has supporting women returnees in Ninewa Governorate with grants to help start-up small businesses. Mina opened a small sweets and snacks shop – she uses the income to support her large family.

DRC has supporting women returnees in Ninewa Governorate with grants to help start-up small businesses. Mina opened a small sweets and snacks shop – she uses the income to support her large family.

Economic recovery and access to livelihoods is pivotal to DRC’s response to displacement in Iraq, including particular focus on women’s access to decent livelihoods and economic opportunities. For example, in Ninewa Governorate, DRC has been providing recently returned women with emergency cash assistance to help them meet some of their immediate needs upon return. Shortly after this, DRC then supports many of these same women with business grants and training to help them make ends meet in the longer-term. This focus recognizes that access to livelihoods is a major barrier to and driver of return and (re)integration, and so can both block and support the achievement of durable solutions to displacement. The complex links between access to livelihoods, durable solutions and violence against women reflects the need for planning, policy and responses aimed at the achievement of durable solutions to displacement to include careful gender analysis and considerations at all levels.

Men must be engaged in both efforts to address VAWG and to increase women’s economic empowerment.

It is now well established that eliminating violence against women and girls requires the engagement of men and boys. In the same way that gender norms impact women’s economic empowerment, perceptions of masculinity in Iraq also influence the way that men perceive that participation and – in some cases – perpetuate violence. For example, beliefs that unrelated men and women are not supposed to mix, perceptions of men as ‘breadwinners’, and tribal and religious traditions can all interact with women’s experience with violence and economic engagement.

Women DRC has supported with business grants in Salah al-Din Governorate have reported that the support of their brothers or husband has helped them succeed. This includes Safa, who runs a successful tailoring shop.

Women DRC has supported with business grants in Salah al-Din Governorate have reported that the support of their brothers or husband has helped them succeed. This includes Safa, who runs a successful tailoring shop.

Understanding these norms and perceptions is critical to safely engaging women in economic activity. At the same time, men can be powerful allies for preventing violence against women and girls and promoting women’s economic empowerment – as shown in recent advocacy by women’s rights organization and Oxfam. They should be closely engaged and, where possible, mobilized in these efforts at household and community levels. Women who received business grants through DRC’s programming in Tikrit have noted that the support of their husbands and brothers have been hugely beneficial to their success. And, in the same cash-for-work activities mentioned above, the men engaged noted that working on the same project as women (though in separate groups) supported increased recognition of women’s capacities, and important milestone for women’s empowerment.

Promoting women’s economic empowerment requires time, investment, and action at multiple levels.

It’s important to acknowledge that the identities, beliefs and traditions of communities in Iraq are diverse and varied and so require context-specific responses. Local women’s rights actors are best placed to navigate these complexities and should be engaged and supported in efforts to address VAWG and promote women’s economic empowerment. The 2021-2025 Roadmap for the Global Call to Action recognizes that localizing GBV mitigation, prevention and response is a best practice for addressing violence against women calls for this to further amplified in international responses. Building and strengthening partnerships with local actors also forms a key part of DRC’s global 2025 strategy.

And while women’s economic empowerment can help reduce exposure to VAWG, it takes time for these shifts to take place. DRC’s experience has shown that longer-term programming is often more effective at addressing barriers for women’s economic empowerment and reducing poverty, and therefore should receive increased attention and funding. Research has also shown that when gender equality outcomes are integrated into programming, longer-term approaches that take place at multiple levels – the individual, household, community and policy level – are more effective at challenging gender-inequality.

Experiences from DRC’s programming shows that while there are a number of challenges to women’s economic empowerment in Iraq, there are opportunities to build on as well. Strengthening the gender lens of economic recovery interventions and exploring ways to more directly consider the violence that perforates the lives of women can help make programs and services better equipped to meet their needs.  While this will take time, investment and action from multiple actors at multiple levels, the benefits are clear: for helping end violence against women and girls, for creating more inclusive and prosperous communities, and for the protection and promotion of fundamental human rights.


DRC would like to thank the multiple donors who helped fund the initiatives referenced in this report. The views and positions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any of these entities.


GBV Sub-Cluster Rapid Assessment on the Impact of COVID-19 Outbreak on Gender-Based Violence in Iraq, May 2020.

UNFPA, The GBV Assessment in Conflict Affected Governorates in Iraq, 2016; Oxfam, Community Perceptions of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, July 2021. See particularly Articles 14 and 29

UNFPA, The GBV Assessment in Conflict Affected Governorates in Iraq, 2016.

For a full review of laws in KRI, see SEED, Legal Framework of Laws and Protections for Survivors and Those at Risk of GBV, 2021.

Iraq Humanitarian Needs Overview, 2022.

Oxfam, Community Perceptions of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, July 2021.

Save the Children, Married by Exception: Child Marriage Policies in the Middle East and North Africa, 2021.

UNICEF, A Profile of Child Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa, 2018.

UN Women, 16 Steps Policy Agenda to end VAWG.

DRC, Labor Market and Livelihoods Competency Assessment – Iraq, April 2020.

IOM Iraq, Persons with Disabilities and their Representative Organizations in Iraq: Barriers, challenges, and priorities, 2021.

Un Women, Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment, 2018.

ILO, World Employment and Social Outlook, 2021.

UNDP Iraq, Gender in Focus, 2013.

UNICEF, Iraq Education Factsheets, 2020.

Zeynep N. Kaya and Kyra N. Luchtenberg, gaps UK, LSE, Women for Women International, Displacement and Women’s Economic Empowerment: Voices of Displaced Women in the KRI, 2018.


National Protection Iraq, Protection Monitoring System/Community Level Dashboard, 2021.

UN OHCHR, Women’s human rights and gender-related concerns in situations of conflict and instability.

World Bank, Economic Empowerment to Address Gender-Based Violence, 2019.

DRC, IRC, Mercy Corps, NRC, Oxfam, Gender Analysis of Livelihoods Programming and Individual, Household and Community Dynamics in Iraq: Summary Report, 2020

Oxfam, Social Norms Structuring Masculinities, Gender Roles, and Stereotypes: Iraqi men and boys’ common misconceptions about women and girls’ participation and empowerment, 2021.

Zorica Skakun, Ines Smyth and Valerie Minne, Oxfam, Transforming Gender Inequalities: Practical guidance for achieving gender transformation in resilient development, January 2021.

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