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In the Drive for Gender Equality, the Law Is Not Always on Women’s Side


City life in Bangkok, above. A new World Bank report found that work and legal protections are missing in rich and poor countries alike, including the US. Only six nations, all in Europe, scored perfectly in providing women equal legal standing as men across their working lives. UN WOMEN

So how are women doing these days, during the global push for gender equality? Not all that great in work and legal protections, according to a new World Bank report, even in some prosperous countries — including the United States.

The US ranked 65th on the report’s scorecard, below Malawi, Kenya and the Bahamas. With a score of 83.75 out of 100, it remained among the highest performers, which is not surprising for countries with higher incomes. “Upper-middle-income economies have an average score of 75.93,” the report said. “Lower-middle- and low-income economies have very similar average scores of 68.74 and 67.56, respectively.”

The report, “Women, Business and the Law 2019,” used eight indicators to gauge women’s progress in achieving legal rights, access to jobs and protection from violence, including sexual harassment, in 181 countries. The average global score was 74.71, and only six countries, all in Europe — Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden — scored 100, indicating that women are on equal legal standing with men during their working years.

That time covers “from a 25-year-old getting her first job or a mother balancing work with caring for her children, to a woman on the brink of retirement,” in the words of Kristalina Georgieva, the interim president of the World Bank Group.

One low score for the US stood out in the “having children” indicator, with the US receiving a 20 out of 100, putting it in the company of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Eritrea, Fiji and Republic of Congo, among others. The indicator includes laws around maternity, paternity and parental leave, which are likely to influence women’s economic decision-making when thinking about starting a family.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the countries that has developed the fastest on women’s legal rights over the last 10 years, scoring “average.” Women are allowed to register their businesses, open bank accounts, sign contracts and gain access to credit. They are also allowed to choose where to live. Congolese women have also gained the right to work, with jobs opening up to them in male-dominated sectors like manufacturing, construction and mining.

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The report looked at new rules and regulations aimed at creating more equality for women. Protecting women against sexual harassment, for example, requires legal steps because it can be so harmful to their careers.

And, as Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, recently told The Guardian: “Sexual harassment is only scratching the surface. Violence against women is still a massive issue and we are not just talking about low income countries: it is in all societies. It has to be discussed, addressed and fought against. There are some terrible things happening to women.”

Countries that scored the worst on women’s rights, or between 25 and 50, included Syria, Qatar, Iran, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Last year, the Saudi government gave women the right to drive, but they still must be accompanied by a man if they leave the house.

The Middle East and North Africa overall made large improvements with steps like adopting domestic violence laws. And in South Asia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan introduced laws on workplace sexual harassment.

All told, 47 countries have introduced laws on domestic violence since 2009. Thirty-five implemented sexual harassment laws, and 33 introduced paternity leave, a boon for women in the workplace.

About 2 billion women are better protected in the workplace compared with a decade ago, the report concluded, but 3.4 billion people nonetheless struggle to meet their basic needs. The effects of poverty greatly affect women, who remain more vulnerable than men worldwide.

“During times of economic crisis, global gender inequalities mean that women and girls, particularly in low-income countries, are more likely to be taken out of school, are the first to reduce the quantity or quality of the food they eat or to forgo essential medicines, and are more likely to sell sex in order to survive,” according to a report by Unaids, a UN entity that fights against HIV.

“Gender equality is a critical component of economic growth,” Georgieva of the World Bank notes. The flip side is that women suffer when the economy declines. In the aftermath of the decade-old financial crisis, life became more difficult for women in hard-hit countries like Spain and Greece.

In any economy, women with children can face setbacks, according to “Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now,” a new OECD report. “Women pay a high price for motherhood, with steep childcare costs, availability or access to such facilities, and taxes deterring many from working more,” it found.

Meanwhile, economic and conflict-related crises tend to fuel political extremism, which can set women back even more. Vox, a far-right party in Spain, gained 12 seats in Andalusia last December and is expected to work for the repeal of a 2004 national law designed to better protect women from domestic violence and better prosecute offenders.

According to research by the International Monetary Fund, the global economy would improve if more women held leading positions. When there are more women on the board of a bank, for example, the number of nonperforming loans shrinks, presumably because women are prone to taking less risk and thinking more long-term.

UN Women, which champions gender equality, found that gender gaps cost the global economy 15 percent of gross domestic product. Yet many countries stopped short of introducing laws or regulations that could help women find jobs or start a business, crucial ways to their achieving financial independence and security — and improving the economy wherever they live. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Jeroen Spangenberg is a writer and researcher based in Rotterdam. He has a degree in international relations from Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. He speaks Dutch, English and Spanish.

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In the Drive for Gender Equality, the Law Is Not Always on Women’s Side
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6 months ago

I appreciate the insightful article on PassBlue highlighting the complexities and challenges women face in the pursuit of gender equality, especially when it comes to legal frameworks. It sheds light on the critical issue of gender bias within the law and serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for true equality. This piece encourages us to continue advocating for change and pushing for a more inclusive legal system. It’s a valuable contribution to the broader conversation on gender equality.

Andre Sirois
Andre Sirois
5 years ago


As a UN attorney who has been fighting for JUSTICE and EQUALITY for more than 50 years, I can assure you that the law does not have to be “on women side”. This is absolutely wrong and does not serve the cause of JUSTICE and EQUALITY. This is plain nonsense. Titles like this confirm the prejudice that the fight for EQUAL RIGHTS is a fight against men and for a new form of injustice.

Andre Sirois

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