Iraqi women face social, political, and financial hardships that put them at a severe disadvantage for economic independence. Overall, an average of just 1 in 6 people in the Iraqi labor force is a woman. But AMAR’s NEW Iraq program aims to tip the scales.
In Melad’s community near the Shatt al-Arab district in Basra, Iraq, working women are hard to find. Although women make up 57% of the population, they only comprise about 17% of the Iraqi labor force. Melad – who believes women can contribute to society beyond the traditional roles of childcare and housework – knows firsthand that the road to gainful employment is uphill. At 36 years old, with a BA in Arabic, Melad could only find work as an unpaid volunteer teacher in a nearby secondary school.
Sarah, 28, was in a similar situation. She received her MA in Education and Psychology and was working in a paid teaching position at a private school in Basra. But when she tragically lost her father in the conflict against ISIS, she realized she would not be able to support herself and her mother on her current income. She hoped to find a better work opportunity, but ultimately lacked the confidence, writing, and interview skills to succeed.
Melad and Sarah are not alone. After decades of war, conflict, and violence, Iraqi women face social, political, and financial hardships that put them at a severe disadvantage for economic independence.
Female heads of household face particular difficulties in this environment. One in every 10 households in Iraq is headed by a widow, but these women experience tremendous cultural and economic barriers when entering the workforce. Oftentimes they can only find low-skill or low-wage jobs – like Melad and Sarah.
Despite these challenges, AMAR’s NEW Iraq program helps tip the scale for female workers. The Network for the Economic Empowerment of Women in Iraq (NEW Iraq) combines mentorship and targeted skills training sessions to help enhance employment opportunities for women. Throughout the year-long program, trainees and mentors work together through virtual and in-person sessions to cultivate skills for economic independence. These sessions include a range of topics like budgeting, time management, CV writing, and goal-setting. Trainees also have access to English and Computer Proficiency courses and receive ongoing virtual support from their mentors during and after the program.
A total of 74 female trainees, 54 from Basra and 20 from Dhi Qar, participated in the pilot of the NEW Iraq program, which will officially wrap up in September.
As the first year of AMAR’s NEW Iraq program draws to a close, many of the female trainees are already experiencing positive results. Approximately 10% of the participants have found employment and a majority of the trainees applied for and received small entrepreneurship grants ranging from $135-$1,300. Trainees will use these grants to supplement start-up funds for their small businesses or to fund materials for their employment search, such as professional office wear or transportation to job interviews.
Melad and Sarah (pictured below) are among the cohort of women that have found new jobs. Both will be joining the AMAR Iraq team as instructors at AMAR’s ACE Centers – Melad as an Adult Education Instructor and Sarah as a Social Worker leading group sessions on human rights and violence prevention.
Sarah’s new role at the ACE Center is one step closer to her dream – to open a psychological institution of her own to provide mental health support to women, especially those who have experienced trauma including widows, orphans, and divorcees. Sarah does not think she would have obtained her new job without the encouragement of her mentors and fellow trainees in the NEW Iraq program. Best of all, her new role will provide her with the additional skills needed to reach her personal goals, while allowing her to earn a monthly salary to help support herself and her mother.
For Melad, the NEW Iraq program has opened a door to a new life. She has learned to expand her ambitions and continues to set greater and greater expectations for herself. The women she met along the way have become like a team to her, and she knows they will stay connected long after the project ends – continuing to give each other encouragement and the confidence needed to thrive as women in a male-dominated society.
Her new-found self-empowerment reveals itself in small ways as well. When Melad initially enrolled in the NEW Iraq program, she took a taxi to the trainings because she was scared to do things on her own. Today – she drives herself.
The NEW Iraq program is funded by the U.S. Consulate in Basra and carried out in close coordination with the Marshall Legacy Institute.