Economic Research Forum (ERF)

The bargaining power of disabled wives: evidence from Iraq

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The rate of labour force participation of women in MENA countries remains lower than in any other part of the world – and it is even lower for women with disabilities. This column reports evidence from Iraq of the impact of disability on the bargaining power of wives within their households.

In a nutshell

Married Iraqi women who are earning have significantly higher bargaining power within the household in terms of the allocation of time and spending.

Disability may substantially reduce wives’ bargaining power, especially for those who do not participate in the labour market.

The government should promote the empowerment of women with disabilities, enabling them to participate in all spheres of life on an equal basis.

Economic analysis of household behaviour makes it possible to estimate how family decisions about participation in the labour market and the allocation of household chores and household spending are influenced by couples’ socio-economic characteristics. It provides a framework for explaining how people’s age, wage, educational attainment and other characteristics affect their decision to work and their bargaining power within the household.

It is generally assumed that household members who work and earn more than their partners will increase their bargaining power within the household – and thereby dominate in terms of household decisions related to spending on certain items and services, as well as on decisions related to labour supply and leisure.

One key area is household production, which refers to chores, such as cleaning, cooking, ironing, and any other activity related to housekeeping, and also to care of children and old people. Even though these services are not directly provided in the labour market by household members, they constitute production because they are marketable and substitutable, as other people can provide them in the market.

In addition to age, wages, education and the number of children, health is a major influence on bargaining power within a household. The capacity to earn a living and to contribute to household life and work is determined by one’s health status. For example, disability affects people’s dependency and vulnerability; and the resources required to provide care for disabled household members compete with other needs.

Disability is a topic of particular interest in Iraq, where people have been disproportionately affected by violence, terrorism and armed conflicts since 2003. These events resulted in injuries, devastation of property and livelihoods, and a significant number of lives lost.

Men and women with disabilities in Iraq come from various religious communities, ethnic groups and age groups. Yet they all face common experiences of often multiple and aggravated forms of discrimination that reduce their wellbeing and hinder their right to access and participate in all aspects of society.

Furthermore, the prolonged armed conflicts have resulted in the release of various hazardous substances into the air, water and soil. In combination with environmental neglect, they have created high levels of toxicity that may have contributed to the growth of detrimental health conditions at birth. The war has caused physical displacements and disabilities, long-term psychological repercussions and broken families embodying collective experiences.

Our study explores the household bargaining power of disabled wives, both those who are earning and those who are not able to participate in the labour market (Giovanis and Ozdamar, 2018). The data are from the Iraq Household Socio-Economic Survey over the period 2012-2013.

We first look at married couples who are both earning. We find that when a wife’s daily wage increases by 1%, her share of household total income increases by $1.25. In other words, increases in her wage are associated with increases in her bargaining power relative to her husband, which translates into greater control of household spending.

Comparing wives with and without a disability, we find that married women who are earners and not disabled have a higher share of household spending by almost $0.95 per day. This is a result of the working hours lost and lower productivity rates of disabled women relative to their non-disabled counterparts. The consequence is a weakening of their bargaining power within the household.

The situation is even worse when a disabled wife does not participate in the labour market, and thus has no earning potential. In particular, disabled wives who are not in the labour market reduce their share of household income, and therefore their bargaining power, at $1.40 per day – which is almost 50% higher compared with wives who are earning.

What other factors influence a wife’s labour supply, according to our analysis? One is that a higher wage for a married earner is associated with increases in the time she spends in the labour market and therefore an increase in her bargaining power. Education is also a significant factor, increasing both spouses’ participation time in the labour market. This is to be expected as more educated people are more likely to participate in the labour market, working more hours and having higher potential earnings.

But differences in age and education can also have a significant impact on bargaining power. In particular, the younger and less educated a woman is relative to an older and more educated husband, the lower her bargaining power. Furthermore, both spouses are more likely to reduce their labour supply when their children are younger than 6 years old. On the other hand, the effect of the number of children aged 6-15 years old is positive and significant on husbands’ labour supply.

Our overall conclusion on disability is that it is an important factor, determining both wives’ participation in the labour market and their role in household production. Disabled women are in a more vulnerable position than those without disabilities and those who are able to participate in the labour market. Moreover, people without disabilities may have access to better quality jobs, be more productive and have higher potential earnings.

It should be noted that there are still major practical issues about disability rights and policies in Iraq. The Iraqi context explored in our study, along with that in other countries in the region, is something that needs closer attention, as many women and girls are imprisoned by disability and by social norms and traditions. Disabled women are less likely to be employed and more likely to participate fewer hours in the labour market.

Furthermore, the employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and especially women, tend to be limited to simple projects, characterised as very few and mostly humiliating (United Nations, 2016).

The situation is particularly difficult not only for disabled women, but also for children living in rural areas who have very limited access to educational opportunities, health centres and specialised services. The government should promote the empowerment of women with disabilities, enabling them to participate in all spheres of life on an equal basis with others, and especially through active participation in the labour market.

Further reading

Giovanis, Eleftherios, and Oznur Ozdamar (2018) ‘Empirical Application of Collective Household Labour Supply Model in Iraq’, ERF Working Paper No 1180.

United Nations (2016) ‘Report on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Iraq’, UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).

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