Youth bear the brunt of violence, insecurity and poverty

Dr. Wamith Khalil Al-Qassab
Iraqi Al-Amal Association

Young people have been especially hard hit by the violence and humanitarian crisis situation facing Iraq. Many must work to help support their families, yet face an unemployment rate estimated at 50%. Literacy rates in young adults are declining, largely because of growing numbers of girls being kept out of school for questions of safety or religious restrictions. Youth aged 13 to 35 account for 65% of the victims of military operations and terror attacks, and most of these young victims are civilians.

This reportfocuses primarily on youth in Iraq, as they represent a large section ofsociety: 28% of the total population is aged between 15 and 29 and another 10%between 30 and 35. For the past three decades, the younger generations havegrown up in a society marked by oppression, despotism and arbitrary policies,and have suffered the effects of economic sanctions. They have been used as atool in wars, targeted by every power that wants to control the country, andforced to assimilate changes in religious, cultural, social and politicalpractices. Violence and humanitarian crisis have become a part of daily life.Because of all this, social security is more essential than ever as a basis forthe young to play a role in rebuilding their nation.

Employment opportunities limited by violence

Decades of armed conflict have made Iraq a markedly ‘young’ society. Manymembers of the older generation were killed in wars, leaving young people withthe responsibility of working to help support their families. Under the previousregime, young men were obliged to enter into military service after graduatingfrom secondary school and college, but since this has not been the case in thelast four years, there have been a rising number of young people flooding thejob market.

The proportion of youth among job seekers in the private sector or in governmentrose from 30% before 2003 to 70% between 2003 and 2005. After 2005, thoseseeking work in the private sector decreased to 50%, while those looking forgovernment jobs rose from 70% in 2004 to 97% in 2007. The reason for this isthat terror attacks on private sector establishments have led more and morepeople to aspire to the security of a job in the government, even if they arealready working in the private sector. On the other hand, the increased activityof militia groups has led to a decrease in private sector employmentopportunities, since most foreign investors withdraw after only a few months ofwork. Since 2003, because of the threat of violence and the kidnapping of theiremployees, many foreign business owners have been forced to move theiroperations to safer areas or leave the country for good.

The Iraqi economy was essentially a war economy from the 1980s until 2003, withthe vast majority of government resources channelled to military spending. Underthe previous regime, young men entering the job market at the age of 29 aftercompleting their military service were faced with salaries of between USD 5 andUSD 20 monthly in government jobs and USD 20 to USD 50 in the private sector.Young female workers received similar salaries but had far fewer employmentopportunities. Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2003, a family needed an income of atleast USD 100 monthly to meet their minimum needs for survival.

After 2003, the influx of foreign investors drawn by the drastic cuts in tradetariffs and the lucrative opportunities to participate in rebuilding thecountry, along with a new salary system established by the government, raisedsalaries to between USD 100 and USD 300 month. At the same time, however,agreements struck between the government and international banks led to a risein fuel prices and service fees and a collapse in the electrical system, leadingto a whole new set of needs for Iraqi families: fuel for electricity generators,heating and cooking gas, and water filters. As a result, a family now needs anincome of between USD 200 and USD 300 a month to survive. Therefore, more thanever before, young people have an obligation to contribute to family income. Yetwith the ongoing violence making jobs outside the government less and lessavailable, and the threats from armed groups against those who work in thegovernment, many young people end up sitting at home and waiting for relief.

Meanwhile, the number of females working in the private sector has decreasedover time, because in many areas of the country, restrictions are being placedon women’s style of dress and freedom of movement in accordance with theIslamic religion – despite the fact that the Iraqi Constitution states thatall people have the right to work and live free from discrimination.

The government has attempted to decrease the high rate of unemployment among thecountry’s youth by opening offices where young people can register to seekwork. However, the large numbers of job seekers and limited numbers of jobopenings have created the conditions for corruption, while the youthunemployment rate remains critically high, and has been estimated at up to 50%.

Between 2006 and 2007, the Iraqi Youth Civil Dialogue Programme undertook aproject to compare the living and employment conditions of young people in threeareas of the country: the north (Sulaimaniya), the south (Dhiqar) and Baghdad.As can be seen in Table 1, despite the regional variations observed, thesituation throughout the country is troubling.

TABLE 1. Youth, employment, violence andpoverty





Employed youth working in government jobs




Youth leaving their jobs to look for jobs in government




Youth who believe violence and terror affect their sources of income




People living under the poverty line




People living on a minimum survival income




Unemployment among young women




Declining literacy rates

The government has always supported the educational system and school attendanceis mandatory for the country’s children. However, the violence and economichardship of recent years have left many families without support and forced manyyoung people to leave school and accept low-paying jobs, although some attemptto study and work at the same time.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2004), theliteracy rate for youth aged 15 to 24 was 74% in 2004, which was lower than theliteracy rates for the 25 to 34 age group, reflecting deterioration ineducational performance. Today, some estimates place the literacy rate for youthaged 15 to 24 as low as 55%. This decline is largely the result of decreasingliteracy rates among girls, an increasing number of whom are being kept out ofschool, sometimes out of fear for their safety, and other times because theymust stay at home and work.

In spite of this, among Iraqi youth who are able to undertake tertiary studies,females made up 55.4% of university admissions in 2006, and accounted for 63.3%of the highest grades among university students.

As Iraqi youth started to open up to technology in the past three years theirapplications to higher education institutions have increased by 14% yearly. Atthe same time, however, tribal traditions and religious regulations affect theability to seek an education, as some ethnic groups in southern Iraq prohibitgirls and young women from entering internet centres or public libraries. Thereis also an increasing tendency to segregate male and female students, as well ascampaigns against female students who refuse to wear veils.

Meanwhile, military operations sometimes make going to school or universityimpossible for many days on end, and this situation obviously has a seriousimpact on the education process. In addition, the growing influence of militiagroups in some schools and universities forces many students to move to otherinstitutes were there is a majority of students from their own ethnic group.

Factors like these have made many students aspire to finishing their educationoutside Iraq. A recent survey found that 66% of male students and 34% of femalestudents said they would prefer to study abroad.

Violence and insecurity has also had a profound impact on the academiccommunity. As of 2006, an estimated 172 scholars had been kidnapped, between 100and 200 had been killed, and 66% said they feared for their lives. Notsurprisingly, some 3,000 scholars have emigrated in recent years.

Most victims of military operations areyoung

While the government has historically provided people with the right to betreated free of charge or with minimum fees in government hospitals, the currentconditions facing the health sector have made this commitment impossible touphold.

According to a 2007 report from Oxfam International, 90% of the country’s 180hospitals lack essential resources such as
basic medical and surgical supplies. In addition to the shortage of medical supplies, hospitals have alsobeen seriously affected by the destruction of water supply networks and therestricted supply of electricity.

Youth between the ages of 13 and 35 account for 65% of the victims of militaryoperations and terror attacks, and most of these young victims are civilians.The large numbers of people left wounded as a result of the ongoing violenceexceed the ability of any hospital to provide adequate care. In addition, theneed for assistance for people left disabled as a result of their injuries faroutstrips the country’s current capabilities.

Meanwhile, attacksagainst doctors and medical sector workers have led to the loss of experts inthe medical field, putting more pressure on young graduates to fill thevacancies. It is estimated that since 2004, between 25 and 40 doctors have beenkilled, 160 to 300 doctors have been kidnapped, and some 3,000 doctors have leftthe country.

Women’s freedom increasingly curtailed

As a party to the U.N. Convention on theElimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Iraqi state has an obligation to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discriminationagainst women by any person, organization or enterprise,” as well as to“modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices whichconstitute discrimination against women.”

Despite this international commitment, Iraqi women are seeing their freedomsincreasingly curtailed by the ongoing violence and the spread of new ideas thatseek to control women in the name of tradition and radical religious belief.While Iraqi society provided women with a relatively high degree of freedom inthe last five decades, today there is growing influence on the part of militiaorganizations and armed groups that have severely limited women’s movement byprohibiting them from driving cars or leaving their homes without a veil.Military operations further restrict women’s opportunities by forcing them towork and study near their homes.

Concluding remarks andrecommendations

Governmentcommitments to human rights and international conventions must be made moreactive and effective through government action to ensure that its obligations tothe people are fulfilled.

Violence is themajor source of insecurity in all branches of life in Iraq, and all majorplayers in the country must take responsibility for what is happening and thecrises that people are facing.

Internationalorganizations and the Iraqi government must work towards enhancing humansecurity by promoting dialogue, the exchange of experience and joint work amongyoung people, and empowering young people in the democratic transformation byrejecting violence and fostering participation in the development process on alllevels (political, social, economic and cultural).

The country’scitizenship must be mobilized through a call for national unity amongst Iraqisby adopting dialogue as the only way to achieve national reconciliation, basedon unity within diversity, non-violence, respect for human rights, and nationalindependence, to preserve the country’s natural resources from waste andcorruption.

Effectivecooperation between the Iraqi government and civil society organizations willprovide greater opportunities for incorporating social security into laws andgovernment policies.

Children’s andwomen’s rights must be given more support to be fully realized, and NGOs mustbe given greater space to work to spread awareness of these rights.

Youth need to betrained to participate in the rebuilding of the country by learning their humanand social rights.

The concepts of social security and human rights shouldbe linked through civil society work in order to build a new generation able tostand against all challenges in Iraq.

TheUnited Nations and international organizations from all over the world should becalled on to take a larger part in helping to address the humanitarian crisisfacing the country.

Prioritymust be placed on the needs and role of women as key players in the process ofhuman security.

Allcitizens of Iraq must be made beneficiaries of the wealth derived from oilproduction by supporting social and human security programmes and projects.

Cooperationbetween NGOs and donors or local banks is needed to provide small loans foryouth and women to implement income-generating projects in towns or villages,especially for widows or women with no source of income.

Moreaid must be directed to the two million internally displaced persons and twomillion refugees to provide them with food, water, education and healthservices.


Alsabah newspaper website:<>.

Azzaman newspaper website: <>

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The ICRC in Iraq section website: <>.

Iraqi Al-Amal Association Civil Dialogue between Iraqi Youth.

Iraqi Association of Human Rights. Humanity voices cycle from 2004, 2005.

Oxfam and
NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI)(2007). “Risingto the humanitarian challenge in Iraq”. Briefing Paper, July. Available from: <>.

UNDP (2004). Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004. Available from:<>


*There are no available data on GEI components.

Dr. Wamith Khalil Al-Qassab is the programme coordinator of the Al-Amal Association’s Iraqi Youth Civil Dialogue Programme; email:

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