Empowered Women, Empowered Children: Examining the relationship between women’s empowerment and the well-being of children in Iraq


Executive summary

Achieving child well-being outcomes remains a global challenge due to the prevalence of children’s vulnerability, particularly in fragile contexts. Every child deserves to reach her or his full potential, however gender inequalities in their lives and in the lives of those who care for them hinder this reality. Gender inequality is recognized as one of the most powerful drivers of children’s vulnerability in all contexts. As part of its mandate to help the most vulnerable children experience the fullness of life, World Vision focuses on child well-being programmes, and capitalize on child well-being outcomes. With intention to increase the focus on gender-responsive programmes that respond to the strategic needs of women, WV Iraq, conducted the given research, to better understand the connection between mother’s and children’s well-being and effectively address both.

Iraq is suffering from both internal and Syria ongoing conflicts, and has been facing a complex humanitarian emergency crisis since 2014. The conflict took its toll on Iraqi women and girls who suffer today from high levels of violence and inequality exacerbated by misconceptions of traditions and cultural and social norms. Iraqi children suffer from repeated displacement and exposure to violent conflict which have both immediate and long-term impacts on their physical, emotional, mental and psycho-social psychosocial well-being. This research explores women empowerment and children well-being factors in Iraq and looks at how women’s socio-demographic factors and empowerment components are associated with child well-being. For this purpose, a cross-sectional observation design was developed with the application of convenience sampling. The research targeted 102 World Vision beneficiary children, aged 11-17 living in structured families and their respective mothers. The survey results are complemented with 5 KIIs with mothers and 5 KIIs with children.

Women’s empowerment factors Empowerment at the relational level takes place in the relationships and power relations within the woman’s surrounding network. It is the most challenging to achieve, due to the fact that women’s immediate environment such as family and community is responsible for it. None of the surveyed women in Iraq are empowered through all relational factors. Women’s decision-making power in the household (HH) is limited due to prevailing patriarchal norms where the husband’s opinion often dominates especially on financial decisions. Women’s control over household assets especially on lands and houses is limited since traditionally, men as the head of household have access and control over the family resources, including money and other assets.

The majority of the surveyed women do not have continue over time and cannot delegate or redistribute caregiving activities. The reason is that harmful gender norms that underpin patriarchal family dynamics impose on them all the reproductive work and enable men to abstain from active engagement in fatherhood and provision of caregiving responsibilities. GBV and especially domestic violence is very prevalent in Iraq due to legal framework that allow perpetrators to act impunity and leave women and girl without any legal protection and due to the assumption that men are entitled to discipline women and girls if they do not conform to the social role attributed to them.
Empowerment at the personal level takes place within the person. This refers to the perception of the woman in relation to herself, her well-being, how she considers her role in society and that of other women. It speaks to women’s overall resilience and the ability to manage daily stress. Only 10% of surveyed women are empowered through personal factors. Overall, the majority of surveyed women have moderate self-esteem and moderate positive self-image and they are spiritually empowered through their religious well-being more than their existential well-being. However, life hardships, family issues and financial situation impact the mental health of almost quarter of surveyed women who showed signs of possible and probable depression. Moreover, the challenges encountered in society make it difficult on Iraqi women to break out of the traditional gender roles and hold a non-sexist attitude. Acceptability of GBV and harmful social norms and traditions that sustain GBV including protecting family honour over women’s safety, and men’s authority to discipline women is still high in general and hinder women empowerment.

Empowerment through environmental factors looks at the broader context, which consists of informal, such as equitable social norms, attitudes and the beliefs of wider society, and formal aspects, such as the gender-responsive political and legislative framework. It is not surprising that none of the surveyed women are empowered through environmental factors, as relational and environmental factors are closely related and reinforcing one another. The majority of women live in communities with highly restrictive gender norms and gender stereotypes especially in the dimensions related to distribution of household tasks, access to education for girls, girls’ early marriage and controlling girls’ behaviour. Cultural barriers and legal limitations control women’s mobility and freedom of their movement. Very few women have access to legal aid and justice when needed, due to social and financial barriers and none of them have legal civic rights including travel rights, custody rights after divorce, property rights and inheritance rights, due to vagueness and contradictions of the legal framework and also because of existence of informal tribal justice system, that is non-administered by the state.

Child Well-Being Outcomes

Children’s well-being was measured by looking at physical outcomes, such as education, nutrition and health, protection, as well as mental and psycho-social indicators. None of the surveyed children achieved well-being through all factors. With regards to education the self-perceived functional literacy is low among surveyed children especially in the dimension of digital literacy and computer skills. The majority of children are enrolled in formal education, but only half of them have positive attitude towards learning and willingness to pursue their education. 14% are out of school with main reasons to drop out the lack of financial resources. With regards to nutrition and health, the majority of surveyed children have good or moderate diverse and adequate nutrition. 10% have poor nutritional outcomes. Positive health-related behaviour is developed only by 9% of surveyed children and could lead to major issues in the adulthood.
Finally, 39% of surveyed Iraqi children are highly exposed to violence and abuse especially from other family members living with them in the same household.

Self-esteem, mental and spiritual wellbeing, resilience and empathy feed into mental and psycho-social dimension of child well-being. The majority of surveyed children have high self-esteem, high resilience capacity, especially through the relation with their caregivers, high empathy and all of them are spiritually empowered. Current events in Iraq, family issues, displacement and financial struggles had impact on the mental health of the country’s children and youth, with signs of possible or probable depression among 14% of surveyed children.

How women’s socio-economic and demographic characteristics affect their empowerment and the well-being of their children

According to research findings, internal displacement increases women’s vulnerability and is associated with negative empowerment factors in women. Displaced women are more likely to hold a sexist attitude and to accept high restrictive gender norms in their communities.
Women's education leads to children’s well-being. Children of literate women in comparison to illiterate women are well-nourished and receive an adequate nutrition.
Living in large households (HH), young age and young marriage age limit women’s empowerment and their children well-being. Women who live in large families especially in polygamous families, have less control over the HH assets and less self-esteem which reflects on their children who become at a higher risk of experiencing violence. Young mothers have also less self-esteem and hold sexist attitudes. Young married women accept and experience GBV and have less control over HH assets.
How women’s empowerment affects the well-being of their children Mothers who can take decisions at the HH level, who can redistribute and delegate care activities and do not hold sexist attitudes are more likely to have children willing to learn and to pursue education. Mothers free from GBV and those who do not accept GBV motivate their children to adopt a positive health behaviour and protect their children from violence. Women who own the decision-making power, also protect their children from violence. Finally, the study found women’s mental well-being to be strongly associated with their children’s mental well-being.

Key Recommendations for programmes

  • Address intimate partner violence and mainstream GBV across all sectors. Both prevention and response to be included in the project designs and implemented/measure accordingly

  • Address harmful social and community norms through awareness raising and advocacy, while liaising with local faith leaders and power holders

  • Adopt project models/approaches that are gender-responsive and provide explicit opportunity to address gender norms and relations, as part of project implementation

  • Adopt gender-transformative indicators that measure changes in gender norms and relations

  • Invest in further research and innovative pilots to find the most effective women empowerment models and practices

  • Invest in staff capacity building on gender equality and social inclusion, to improve the quality of interventions