Social Change in Iraq

A displaced woman who fled from clashes carries her baby during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic state militants in western Mosul


As discussed by Wolchik and Curry (2015) in their volume on the Eastern European transition to democracy, social aspects of transformation with associated social pathologies are an important part of system change, often poisoning the political discussions of a country. Social aspects and social pathologies include alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, prostitution, violence in the home, drug use and street crime, organized crime, human trafficking, smuggling, sex trade, tensions between various ethnic groups, discrimination and marginalization of minorities (Wolchik and Curry 2015, p. 30), not to mention an increase in state-organized crime relations. In the specific case of Iraq, the social costs of war with associated war amenities must also be added, as these have important repercussions on the socio-structural transformations in employment relations, in the availability of funds for social security, also leading to an increase in terrorism and suicidal bombings.

To provide a brief picture of the main socio-economic transformations, since the 1960s, Iraq witnessed an exponential growth of the population. This was caused by the economic expansion following the increase in oil prices resulting from the OPEC decision of the 1970s (World Bank Development Indicators 2015). The subsequent sudden rise in revenues and in welfare significantly changed the lifestyle and political aspirations for liberty of many Iraqis. This included the materialization of a baby-boom, as it happened in Western Europe during the golden age of the welfare state (Esping-Andersen 1999; Pierson 2001), with an exponential rise in the number of new births. Changes in political orientation towards an increase in post-materialist values and the secularization of the society, as aptly described by Inglehart (1990), have also materialized, though to a lower extent than in Western post-industrial societies. As a result of these societal changes, the percentage of the urban population rapidly increased, from approximately 40 percent of the total population in the 1960s to 70 percent at the end of 2012 (World Bank Development Indicators 2015).

Though comparable long-term labor market statistics for the same period are not available, in the 1990s Iraq witnessed a slow growth in employment. Important to note here is that, despite significant improvements, access to labor market remains predominantly male-dominated, with particularly high percentages of youth unemployment and especially among young women. A recent report of the IBRD/World Bank (2014, pp. 90-94), based on a seven day recall period, has shown that the almost totality of women (approximately 90 percent) are not in the labor force. The remaining 10 percent is employed in part-time jobs. Changes from part-time to full-time employment are observable for men. Employment, especially for men, is the highest in the central governorates of the country and has increased between 2007 and 2012 in Kurdistan and the Northern regions as well, where it has reached the national average of 70 percent. The southern governorates have witnessed, instead, a decrease in men employment (IBRD/World Bank 2014, pp. 94-95)[1].

Increasing poverty has been a clear outcome of the various civil conflicts, ethnic tensions and wars that have characterized the country since the advent of Saddam Hussein with his contentious politics (Tilly 2007) of discrimination and assassinations of political opponents and minorities. The al-Anfal Campaign against the Kurds conducted between 1986-1989 (or Kurdish genocide) is only one notable example of the crimes against humanity committed by the Saddam regime. The wars that followed, both for oil-related reasons, as well as for reasons concerned with the responsibility of the international community to protect against such massacres, as expressed in the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001) (see also Merkel and Grimm 2009), worsened pre-existing socio-structural problems of development. Between 2007 and 2012, years where the first comparable statistics are available, the poverty headcount ratio at US$ 2 a day slightly changed from 22 to 21 percent of the population (World Bank Development Indicators 2015). In terms of regional divisions, in 2012, 58 percent of Iraq’s poor lived in five governorates (Baghdad[2], Basra, Nineveh, Babylon and Thi-Qar), compared to 40 percent in 2007 (Word Bank 2014, p.19). Interestingly, the highest poverty rates have been found among households headed by women, unemployed, part-time workers, employed in the agricultural and fishing sector and construction. The lowest poverty rates among people employed in public administration and services and utilities (World Bank 2014, p. 32). Here, it is important to note that the average wage in Iraq corresponds to 642 US$ and the system is based on the male breadwinner model, which means that only men work in the household. Taking into account the fact that a three bed room apartment outside the center of Bagdad costs 643 US$ and one kilo of white rice 1.76 US$[3], it becomes immediately evident that no single worker is able to feed his family with one single salary.

As argued for the case of population growth, life expectancy increased over the years, though it dropped during the period of wars, with a higher intensity for men than for women. In 2012, the life expectancy at birth in Iraq reached the age of 66 for men and 73 for women. This is a threshold well below the more advanced post-industrial economies. Mortality rates for both men and women have also increased since 2003, but with a higher intensity for men than for women (almost threefold) (World Bank 2014, p.90). From 1991 to 2003, mortality rates stabilized, but the international sanctions implemented, for example, through the Oil for Food Program, did not succeed to lower the impact of the crisis antecedently caused by the Saddam regime (Burnham et al. 2006). Moreover, the lack of primary care for pregnant women during the 2003 war period resulted in a drastic increase in maternal deaths (roughly 730 in 2013) (World Bank Development Indicators 2015).

In Iraq, about five percent of children are orphans who have lost one or both parents (UNICEF 2012, p. xxi). According to a UNICEF survey, one-third of children are also facing several deprivations of their rights simultaneously: three or more deprivations, among which the sufficient access to health care services (see UNICEF 2012, p. xxii). As it often happens in war zones, the highest percentages of malnutrition are not found in rural areas, but in the main cities. In terms of regional differentiation, the highest number of malnourished and underweight children (approximately 13 percent) can be found in the governorates of Al-Anbar, Bagdad, and Najaf, whilst highest percentages of moderate and severe stunting (28-35 percent) in Al-Anbar, Bagdad, Diyala and Najaf governorates (UNICEF 2012, p. xvii).

As far as the sector of education is concerned, since the 1980s, the ratio of girls to boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education significantly increased, though it continues to show a male predominance in school enrollment. Overall, this means that around 9 girls for every 10 boys go to primary school; 8 girls for every ten boys go to secondary school and 6 girls for every 10 boys attend tertiary education[4]. In Kurdistan, in the north of the country and in Baghdad the school gross enrollment is higher, followed by the central and southern governorates (IBRD/World Bank 2014, p. 66).

As far as gender equality is concerned, Iraq still displays characteristics typical of less secularized societies. A UNICEF-led survey has shown, for example, that, overall, 51 percent of women in Iraq feel a husband has the right to beat for at least one of five reasons: she goes out without telling him, if she neglects the children, if she argues with him, if she refuses sex with him, if she burns the food (UNICEF 2012, p. xxi). The rate of acceptance is higher in the southern part of Iraq and lower in the northern part, but, in particular, in the Kurdistan region (UNICEF 2012, p. xxi). With reference to the political representation of women in the national parliament, the proportion of seats held by women has drastically increased since 2003, corresponding, at the end of 2014, to roughly one-fourth of total seats (World Bank Development Indicators 2015). However, as this brief discussion shows, despite enormous improvements since the collapse of the Saddam regime, cultural repertoires still play a determinant role in influencing the patterns of interest and system representation, as the proportion of women in the parliament still remains low in international standards.

Important to note is that the United Nations economic sanctions have changed the traditional diet of Iraqis, lowering the availability of foods. Whilst the traditional diet of Iraqis included rice with soup or sauce, accompanied by lamb and vegetables, today, because of food rations, most people eat rice or another grain sometimes with sauce. The rations provided are estimated to last twenty to twenty-three days and include flour, tea, sugar, rice, beans, milk, cooking oil, soap, and salt[5]. What should be remembered is that Iraq needs to import a large quantity of food in order to feed its population. Oil-led economic growth helps to provide additional funding for imports and for price subsidies to basic goods, but it does not resolve the problem (FAO 2014).

Huge urban-rural divides exist in the access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities. In Iraq, 91 percent of the population has access to improved drinking water sources. 98 percent of the population in urban areas has access to them, while only 77 percent in rural areas (UNICEF 2012, p. xviii). In Diyala and Salahaddin, the situation is worse with only 80 percent of the population having access to improved water sources. The situation improves in Kirkuk, Bagdad, Al-Najaf, Basrah and in the Kurdish region the population, with approximately 97 percent of the population covered (UNICEF 2012, p. xviii). Similarly, 97 percent of the population in Iraq has access to sanitation facilities (urban 99 percent; rural 92 percent). In Erbil the condition of households is the best with 100 percent of the population covered (UNICEF 2012, p. 87).




[1] Employment rates for women are substantially lower and range from 13 percent in Kurdistan to 9 percent in the North and the South (IBRD/World Bank 2014, pp. 94-95).

[2] Please note that according to the IBRD/World Bank (2014, p. 34) report, households in Baghdad need a minimum income that is on average 40 percent higher than the Baghdad poverty line.

[3] Cost of Living in Iraq available at:

[4] see UNICEF 2015.

[5] See Countries and Their Culture 2015.

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