International Women's Day: Iraq Has a Weak Record on Women's Rights

The Government of Iraq is fully committed to improving women’s rights in Iraq. In fact, Iraq has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Iraqi Constitution guarantees 25% of seats in parliament to women. It is one of the few governments in the Arab World to have such a quota system in place. However, a recent Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit (IAU) report has found that Iraq still has a long way to go in ensuring women’s empowerment and equality.

The report breaks down its findings into four categories: literacy and education, labor force and employment, female headed households, and violence against Women. 

In terms of education, 24% of Iraqi women are illiterate as compared to 11% of Iraqi men. In rural areas, illiteracy among women reached as high as 50%. Among the reasons for young women’s illiteracy, 50% is simply because their parents refuse to send them school. Education is of vital importance in advancing women’s empowerment. According to USAID, when girls attend school for seven or more years, they are likely to marry four years later and have two fewer children. Additionally, when 10% more girls obtain an education, a country’s GDP will increase by 3%.  Improving access to education will be the critical factor in fostering change in the Iraqi women’s status.


The IAU report also finds because of the hindrances to women’s education, women are less likely to be involved in the labor force. Only 14% of women are employed or actively seeking employment as compared to 73% of men. Furthermore, there is a high unemployment rate among educated women due to limited opportunities for women in the labor force. Most jobs held by women are in the public sector. Only 2% of employed women work in the private sector, mostly in rural agricultural jobs that require little to no education.

Due to years of war and conflict, one in ten Iraqi households is female-led. Nine out of ten of these women are widows. The systems in place to support these women are corrupt and out dated, and given limited educational and employment opportunities, most of these women are reliant on state-aid to provide for their families.

Lastly, the statistics on gender-based violence in Iraq are the most staggering. Gender-based violence, including domestic violence, honor killings, and trafficking, is fairly widespread with 21% of women ages 15-49 suffering physical abuse at the hands of their husbands, 33% suffering emotional abuse, and 83% victims of controlling behavior. Additionally, up to 41% of women in Kurdistan may be subjected to female genital cutting. According to the report, there are many cultural and social obstacles that need to be overcome in order to end these types of violence against women.  

There are many organizations focused solely on gender issues in Iraq. The United Nations alone has a budget of $20 million for its women’s education and empowerment programs. Hopefully, the Government of Iraq’s commitment to the advancement of women, along with NGO and international agencies’ work on the ground, will help Iraq reach the goals of women’s empowerment as a human rights and development issue as outlined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 as well as Millennium Development Goal 3. 

Photo Credit: slowcool

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Alexandra Zimmerman

Alexandra works as a Program Coordinator on women's business leadership at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She previously worked at the Wilson Center, a leading non-partisan think tank in Washington, DC and at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where she was taught courses entitled "20th Century Political History of the Middle East" and "Religion and Identity." She received an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Religion concentrating in Islamic studies from the George Washington University. She loves to cook and travel and is a huge fan of the NY Giants and NY Mets.

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