Powering women in Iraq

Image of power lines in Iraq Image of power lines in Iraq

A woman in Abu Al-Khaseeb in Basra, Iraq started a small kitchen to make ends meet when her husband got sick. Today, she runs a successful small business and employs twenty women, including two internally displaced women from Anbar and Mosul. But the productivity of her business is significantly affected by frequent power outages.

“I established a small kitchen and became successful. When my husband recovered, he started supporting me because he saw the economic value of my work. He is now responsible for buying the groceries for the kitchen. But without electricity, the production of my kitchen is down by almost 80 percent,” she said.

Another local 32-year-old female salon owner is also struggling. Due to unreliable electricity services, she has lost clients, and profits have decreased as a result. “I can…quadruple [my] net profit with efficient and reliable electricity,” she said.

Women who engage in income-generating activities such as sewing and handcrafting at home are reporting loss of income, and in some cases, are forced to discontinue their pursuits.  

Iraqi women are disproportionately affected by the hidden costs of unreliable electricity, exacerbating existing gender equality gaps in economic opportunities, business performance, access to educational opportunities, and in safety and security. Iraq has one of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the Middle East and North Africa region. Only 19 percent of the female population aged 15 and above are employed. Iraqi women with lower levels of education are often self-employed or work in the informal sector. The 2011 Iraq Enterprise Survey identifies access to electricity as an obstacle among Iraqi female-owned businesses. Additionally, these women face heightened risk of gender-based violence in the country. In fragility, conflict and violence affected contexts, it is crucial to address these development challenges related to infrastructure and service delivery and gender equality and in a holistic way.

A World Bank qualitative assessment conducted with over 100 female business owners, entrepreneurs, students, and key experts revealed how unreliable electricity impedes income and productivity of women’s small sized businesses, and how it discourages women from pursuing further education and or engaging in income-generating activities. Power outages have made it difficult for Iraqi women to complete vocational training, some Iraqi women admitted to abandoning their income-generating trades inside the home because of how significantly the power outages would diminish their earnings.

Additionally, Iraqi women are primarily responsible for household work and caregiving activities. Poor electricity services in the summer months, for example, means women often cook without air conditioning or proper ventilation. The excessive heat has led to increased incidents of skin disease and other heat-related illnesses.  

The number of female-headed households has recently surged in due to conflict and violence. As of 2017, this group constituted 10 percent of the population. Female heads of households indicated that unreliable electricity services and access to electric appliances are major barriers to generating income for their families.

In slums, the combined problems of electricity access, reliability, and affordability are further exacerbated. Internally displaced women living in slum areas do not have meters installed in their homes, and consequently resort to unsafe and illegal electricity connections.

Nearly all female participants also expressed an increased sense of insecurity and limited mobility due to unreliable electricity, particularly in public spaces. “It is impossible for women to leave the house at night alone, even in emergencies. She has to be with a male relative because it is too dark in the streets,” stated one social worker.

Iraqi women also lack proper information about energy efficiency measures and electricity bill payment options. While some low-income participants, including female heads of households and women who received social assistance were granted the option of paying their overdue bills in installments, they were under the impression that overdue bills would be forgiven.

Sustainable Development Goal 7 aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, modern energy for all.” By drawing on qualitative research and its findings, the Iraq Electricity Services and Reconstruction and Enhancement Project  will monitor impact of service improvements on women’s economic activities, health outcomes, security, and safety. It will also raise more awareness on energy efficiency, user rights and responsibilities concerning electricity services. Ultimately, our hope is that the project can help implement actions to increase women’s access to reliable electricity services and improve their quality of life.

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Ezgi Canpolat

Social Development Specialist, World Bank

Elisabeth Maier

Senior Operations Officer

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