Life as a refugee

Working towards dreams

Supporting women access income in Salah al Din and Diyala Governorates, Iraq.

Updated 15 May 2022

“I have so many dreams in mind, and one of them is being able to work.”

“I have so many dreams in mind, and one of them is being able to work.”

Three stories

For over a year, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has been working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to support people in Diyala and Salah Al-Din governorates to access livelihoods, with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), provided through KFW Development Bank.

Recognizing that the challenges Iraqis face in earning an income are different – and interact with vulnerabilities in various ways – this support took multiple forms: some 5,000 people participated in short-term cash for work opportunities; over 500 people had the opportunity to build their skills through vocational training; and, around 1,650 people received grants to help them create or grow their business. 

It is well recognized that women in Iraq face particular challenges to access an income – including restrictive gender norms. This also interacts closely with their exposure to gender-based violence. According to the World Bank, only around 1 in 10 women of working age in Iraq participate in the labor force. Recognizing these dynamics, the project focused particularly on supporting women to access livelihoods.  

These are some of their stories. 

Huda's story

Huda* is 22, and lives near Al Khalis in Diyala. Huda is divorced, and has found supporting herself and her five-year-old daughter challenging due to the lack of jobs in the area.

"I never had a job before… It is really hard to find job opportunities here, especially for women. People in the community often restrict women from working because of tradition."

Huda participated in cash-for-work activities under the project, working for a short period in a community plant nursery.

"The project has impacted the community in a positive way, especially financially. It’s also helped slightly reduce the barriers preventing women from working...If I had not had this opportunity, the challenges would be harder in my life."

Cash-for-work activities support vulnerable households meet their immediate needs, especially when they may have unexpected expenses or challenges making ends meet. For Huda, the income she earned through her work helped her stay in school and support her daughter:

"The financial support has helped me in paying my tuition, and also helped me meet some of my daughters needs."

Now that she’s one-step closer to graduating, she’s looking to the future:

"I am a very ambitious person… I have so many dreams in my mind. When I complete my studies, I have a business plan – I want to open a beauty salon."

Noor's story

In some cases, people may have the potential means to work, but lack the skills – including due to years of displacement which interrupted opportunities they would have otherwise had, like education or training. This was the case for Noor*, 34, who was displaced during the conflict, but on returning home saw the opportunity to work with her mother-in-law on a tailoring business in their village near Tikrit:

"My mother-in-law is an expert in tailoring, so I wanted to share a business with her. She’s been doing this work for a while, and already had many customers."

Under the project, Noor completed training that helped her improve her business skills as well as supported her skills in tailoring.

"I decided to sign up to the training to develop my skills in tailoring… [But,] I also increased my skills in marketing a business management… This type of vocational training impacts the community by creating new work opportunities and developing the skills of members of the community." 

While before the training she had no source of income, since completing it Noor says she’s using the earnings to support herself and her three children – something she was struggling to do before. That’s why Noor says supporting women with these types of opportunities is especially important:

"Job opportunities are open for men in all spaces, while women are trapped in work around the home… [Yet,] many women lost their breadwinners [during the conflict], like husbands, brothers or fathers. They have families who need to be supported. But their opportunities for earning an income are very limited."

Khadija's story

Khadija's story

Khadija, 23, comes from a big family; she lives with her parents, seven sisters and two brothers. They live in Al Alam, Salah al-Din, and were previously relying on her father’s pension to meet all their needs. Under the project, Khadija received a business grant, which helped her open a small bakery selling cakes and sweets.

Business grants like the one Khadija received can help support families with more sustainable sources of income. Particularly, they can help women overcome the initial pushback from the community.

"Finding a job is very difficult these days, so getting an income is challenging. The main challenge is the [negative] perception of the community towards women trying to earn an income by starting a business."

Khadija's dream project

Khadija reached out for support when she learned that the project was especially supporting women: "I always wanted to have my own business, and when I knew that DRC was serious in helping women compete with men in the local market, I hoped I could get support," she says. This support, she has helped her work towards a personal dream and support her family.

"It helped me to start my business, which was my dream project. Since I graduated from college, I wanted my own business – especially when I couldn’t find a job. And I wanted to provide an income to help my family."

Khadija says that her favorite part of running a business is being her own boss and interacting with customers:

"My customers are so demanding, and I like that because I know I’m capable of meeting their needs and expectations." 

For now, Khadija’s brother is also working in the shop, to help increase the income to the family, but she doesn’t think this will last for long:

"I want to expand my shop and employ only women [so they have more opportunities to work]. Eventually I want to open my own café – it will be the first one run by a woman in the community."

One of the reasons the project has been so successful at engaging women is thanks to the work of the community committees. These groups of men and women support in connecting DRC with the community, spreading awareness about the project, and identifying vulnerable community members who may benefit from the activities.  

Salma, 40, is one of the women members of the committee in Diyala. 

"The community committee is an important link between the community and DRC," she says. 

"My role was inviting women to learn more, gathering information about vulnerable families, identifying families who may be most in need, and checking they are eligible." Indeed, Noor mentions that she found out about the vocational training opportunity in Salah al Din through the work of one such committee. 

Salma says it’s important that women are included in these types of committees because they are often best placed to identify vulnerable members of the community, including women, who may be otherwise overlooked due to bias against their ability to work: 

"Families in the community are conservative, and traditions are not allowing women to work." 

Having women like Salma on the community committees helps ensure that women like Huda, Noor and Khadija are aware of opportunities like those provided through this project and supported through-out. This way, barriers can be broken, and they can keep working towards their dreams. 


*Names changed for anonymity

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