Naila, Rasha and Anu beat all the odds

March 8, 2022

Women at a vocational training center in Tikrit

This International Women’s Day, we spoke to three Iraqi women on their journey to rebuild their lives after the ISIL conflict. This is what they had to say.

Every year, this day is a reason to celebrate the diverse achievements of women and call for action against all forms gender inequality. This year’s theme is to break biases and end prejudices against women and girls. Today, we call for action to break the same biases and prejudices that tell women and girls that there are things such as, jobs and education they cannot do. 

In Iraq, these same gender biases limit women and girls’ equal access to jobs and education. Most women are unemployed, with perceptions of masculinity often giving men the role of the ‘provider’ and restricting their roles to the home. Yet, every day, Iraqi women are breaking barriers and shifting these perceptions, to earn an income and support their families – like Naila, Rasha, and Anu. 

In Diyala and Salah Al-Din, UNDP has been working with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) to support women with economic ambitions. This support comes in different forms: cash-for-work activities, like Naila participated in; vocational training, like Rasha received; and business grants, like the one that helped Anu start her business.  

Naila and other women clear grass at a nursery as part of cash-for-work activities in Al-Khalis, Diyala.

Naila’s* Story

Naila, 34, took part in cash-for-work activities at a plant nursery in Al-Khalis, Diyala. “I did not have any kind of work before – it was the first opportunity I had in my life, and it was an amazing opportunity. I feel enthusiastic to work more and move forward in my life.”

The situation Al-Khalis can be challenging to find work Naila explains. “There is a lack of job opportunities. Most people are unemployed, especially women, and it’s hard to earn an income.” Together her brother and her – who work as a daily laborers – handle supporting their large family of 14 people.

The belief in the community that women cannot work changed during this activity. As Naila says, “when women took part in the project it reduced the concept of women not being allowed to work. [The community] realized that women can take part in certain types of work.” 

In fact, while the cash-for-work activity lasted only 40 days (about 1 and a half months), the project had longer-term impacts on Naila. “I invested my money in two ways. First, I spent some of the money on my mother’s treatment since she is sick. Secondly, I also used some of the money to start my own small project. I bought a sewing machine and started stitching clothes for family and neighbors.”  

Naila shares that she learnt sewing from her mother when she was a child, and that being a tailor has always been a dream. But it doesn’t end there – she has big plans. “My plan is to have a workshop to teach women how to sew. So, I can expand my business, create opportunities for women, and provide better services to my community.”

Women taking part in the tailoring workshop in Tikrit

Rasha’s* story

Rasha, 23, was displaced with her family during the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) conflict. She now lives in Tikrit. She has been unable to return home as it was destroyed. “When the war started with ISIL, there was bombing in the area. So, like all families did, we had to flee towards a safer area. I wish we could go back to our home city, that we manage to rebuild our house and can be close to our relatives and friends.” Another barrier to returning home for Rasha is the lack of employment opportunities.

While Rasha’s father gets a small pension from his earlier job as a public servant, and her brother works as a daily wager, she says it is not enough to support their household of seven. She was eager to help but was not sure how to get started. “My main challenge was that I had no professional background. I always wanted to help [my brother and father] to cover the family expenses and help in rebuilding our damaged house,” she says.

But, Rasha says, women are limited to certain jobs by gender norms. “Women in our communities have limited space to find suitable and acceptable jobs, while men have all the space they need and can work in any job.” Tailoring, she says, is one of the few jobs that is acceptable to the community. She was excited to hear that DRC and UNDP were providing training. “These kinds of trainings give an opportunity to people to earn an income and find a livelihood. If not for the training I would still be without a skill, and I would never have a chance to open a business or even find a job,” she explains. 

Following the training, Rasha is trying to open her own business. While that is her next step, she has a vision for the future. “My dream is to become a famous tailor, expand my business, and employ women in need, especially divorced women, and widows. I also want to earn enough to rebuild our house and go back to our home.”

Anu’s* story

Anu, 28, is divorced, and lives in Tikrit with her mother, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew. Her family and her were left displaced during the ISIL conflict. Unfortunately, she lost her brother and father during the conflict. This made Anu the sole provider for her family.

Since Anu returned home, she says, “The situation is becoming better but is not like it was before the conflict. It was safer, with more job opportunities.” 

According to Anu, it is particularly challenging for women to find work, though she was eventually able to find work at a pharmacy. “As a divorced young woman, it was really challenging due to tribal traditions which restricts women from working outside the house. Working outside the house put me under pressure from the community, and I was criticized by male relatives. [But] The need for an income motivated me to ignore all that and continue working.”   

While her and her family’s situation improved when she found her job, Anu hoped to start her own business using her cooking skills. “I am good in cooking, but I needed financial support to expand my business. [And] I had no awareness of business management.” Following training which Anu says helped teach her about marketing, finances and business management, DRC and UNDP supported her with a grant to help start her business preparing meals on demand. Now she says she receives orders from all over the area and has even hired an employee – a woman who like her has returned to Tikrit after being displaced by the conflict. “My customers are totally satisfied with my work, and the [number of orders] are increasing day by day,” she says. 

Anu says that she loves being her own boss and being able to support others after being helped by so many while she was displaced. More than that, though, she says she loves being a woman with a successful business in a “challenging” community. “Women face challenges working outside the house. Working among men is restricted in our communities. But men are free to work in any job, anywhere,” she says. 

Anu is running her business from her home for now, but like Naila and Rasha, she says she has bigger dreams. “[For now,] my business is in my house, so this will not make issues with the community. I respect the traditions of the community. But later [I want to] have a public restaurant in the market next to the men’s businesses. I will have challenges, but I’m ready for them. And I hope to do it soon, since my dream is to have my own brand and open branches in every city.”

The support to women like Naila, Rasha, and Anu was provided through a project implemented by Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in partnership with UNDP’s Iraq Crisis Response and Resilience Programme. The project funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), provided through KFW Development Bank.

Names changed for to protect identity of the women interviewed.