Women have been disproportionately affected by Iran’s economic crisis, with more women out of work than at any time over the last six years, a new report by Iran’s government statistics agency confirms.

The 2021 report, entitled “Half of the Labor Market Missing as Iran’s Economy Begins Recovery” and published on July 14, assesses Iran’s recovery following the disastrous 2020-2021 financial year.

Employment on the Rise

As with most countries in the world, the coronavirus pandemic had a major impact on Iran’s employment figures. According to the Statistical Center of Iran's 2020 report, about two million workers left the job market last year, and nearly one and a half million people lost their jobs. The most current report showed that, after a year of crisis, about 1.5 million people were out of work — a million of them lost their jobs rather than choosing to leave — so employment figures for the spring have reflected some improvement.

But this year's spring report indicates that in the span of one year, about 500,000 more people were of working age than the year before, and 700,000 more people joined the workforce. In other words, a quarter of the population that left the labor market in spring 2020 have now returned to the labor market, and about half of those who lost their jobs have now been re-employed.

However, it is too early to talk about recovery. A comparison of the statistics for this spring with the spring of 2020 makes it clear that there is still a long way to go before recovery.

In the last two years, nearly 1.4 million people have been added to the country’s aged 15-and-over population. But not only has participation in the economy not increased, but the number of people actively taking part in the economy in the spring of this year is still 1.5 million less than it was during the spring of 2020. Similarly, the working population in spring of 2021 is still about 800,000 less than it was two years ago.

Employment figures for the beginning of 2021 are almost equal to the same figures for the working population in 2016. That means that, in five years, the number of jobs created has been almost zero, while Iran's population has grown from about 80 million to about 85 million over this time. So five million people have been added to the population that needs to be fed and cared for, but the number of people working and providing these necessities has remained the same.

Women: The Main Victims of Iran’s Employment Crisis

Iranian women were deprived of even the slightest employment boom in spring 2021. In spring 2020, about 700,000 jobs were created, but women’s share of this was minimal. In fact, in the last year, the working population of women has not only failed to increase, another 170,000 women have lost their jobs and an estimate of 100,000 more women have simply left the labor market.

This signals the lowest number in six years, with the number of women employed in the spring of 2021 amounting to less than 3.8 million.

The Statistical Center’s quarterly reports show that back in the spring of 2015 the number of working women in the country was lower than today’s figure. But between the two periods, the figure has been on the increase. But now women's participation in Iran’s economy has failed to increase, despite the population of women over the age of 15 increasing by two million in the last six years.

According to the Center, 41 percent of the overall population of Iran is contributing to the economy. Men participate in the economy at a rate of 69 percent; but for women, that participation is less than 14 percent.

Such a low level of economic engagement among women is unprecedented in the world. Currently, the World Bank Data Center shows a figure of 17 percent economic engagement for women, but this figure has not been updated since 2019. Even with a 17 percent participation rate, Iran ranks as the 10th worst country when it comes to women’s employment rate. But if we consider the actual number of women currently employed or active in the economy — so, 13.7 percent — Iran ranks lower than Palestine, Afghanistan, Djibouti and Pakistan, coming below Guinea-Bissau, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan and Algeria.

Why are Women Bearing the Brunt?

On paper, Iran should have one of the highest rates for women in employment, at least in the region. The population of women over the age of 15 is more than 31 million, but only 11 percent of this population has work and is economically active. If Iranian women were on the same level as that of Turkish women, 10 million women should be employed and engaged in economic activity, instead of fewer than four million women.

Iran’s workforce is relatively highly qualified. Official statistics say about a quarter of Iranian women over the age of 18 have a university degree.

There are various cultural, social and political reasons to explain why women are not able to enjoy the employment opportunities they should. If we look at the economic roots of the situation, it is clear that unstable conditions — both economic and political — as well as successive recessions and sanctions had and continue to have a profound impact on women's employment in Iran.

In many economic environments, women, especially urban educated women, work in the service sector. This is the very sector that has suffered throughout the pandemic, and before this, the crises of sanctions and ongoing recessions have also had a detrimental impact on the sector. All of this means women’s experience in the workplace, or in trying to enter it, is much more difficult than that of men’s. Add to this the fact that women, who face cultural, social and political disenfranchisement in Iran, are often less able to secure job stability, and it means women are at greater risk of losing their jobs and of facing poverty.

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