W’Bank: Despite Gains, Women Face Setback in Legal Rights

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World Bank Group Interim President Kristalina Georgieva

Ugo Aliogo

Globally, women are accorded only three-quarters of the legal rights that men enjoy according to a new index released by the World Bank, constraining their ability to get jobs or start businesses and make economic decisions that are best for them and their families.

“If women have equal opportunities to reach their full potential, the world would not only be fairer, it would be more prosperous as well,” said World Bank Group Interim President Kristalina Georgieva.

“Change is happening, but not fast enough, and 2.7 billion women are still legally barred from having the same choice of jobs as men. It is paramount that we remove the barriers that hold women back, and with this report we aim to demonstrate that reforms are possible, and to accelerate change.”

The index, introduced in the study Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform, looked at milestones in a woman’s working life, from starting a job through to getting a pension, and legal protections associated with each of these stages. The data spans a ten-year period where 187 countries are scored according to eight indicators.

According to the report, achieving gender equality is not a short-term process, requiring strong political will and a concerted effort by governments, civil society, international organisations among others, but legal and regulatory reforms can play a foundational role as an important first step.

“Progress over the last ten years in the areas measured by the index has been significant. During this time, the global average has risen from 70 to 75. 131 economies have made 274 reforms to laws and regulations that improve women’s economic inclusion. 35 countries implemented legal protections against sexual harassment at work, protecting nearly two billion more women than a decade ago. 22 economies removed restrictions on women’s work, reducing the likelihood that women are kept out of working in certain sectors of the economy. And 13 economies introduced laws mandating equal remuneration for work of equal value.

Six economies – Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden – now hold perfect scores of 100, meaning they give women and men equal legal rights in the measured areas.

“A decade ago, no economy could make that claim. Under this index, economies that conducted reforms experienced bigger increases in the percentage of women working overall, leading to women’s economic empowerment.

“Despite these efforts, women in many parts of the world still face discriminatory laws and regulations at every point in their working life. Fifty-six countries – spanning all regions and income levels – enacted no reforms at all to improve women’s equality of opportunity over the ten-year period. The pace of reform was the slowest in the category of managing assets – examining gender differences in property rights,” the report added.

The study developed new insight into how women’s employment and entrepreneurship are affected by legal discrimination, and in turn how this affects economic outcomes such as women’s participation in the labour market. The new index aims to lay a roadmap for progress over time and identify potential areas where more work is needed, to inspire reforms that benefit gender equality.

The report showed that sub-saharan Africa had the most reforms compared with other regions with 71 over the past decade.

“Though this is in part due to the large number of economies in the region, it is also an indication of improvement from the baseline. More than half the reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa were in the areas of starting a job and getting married. Within each of these indicators, the biggest areas of improvement were on laws affecting gender-based violence. Five economies introduced laws on workplace sexual harassment and domestic violence,” it added.

East Asia and Pacific had the second highest increase in the index, rising to 70.73 from 64.80 and second highest percentage of economies enacting reforms, with 84 percent. There were 38 reforms in the region. Nine economies in the region reformed in the category of getting married by introducing domestic violence legislation. China, Singapore, and Vietnam were among eight economies of the region that introduced paid paternity leave.

There were 47 reforms in Europe and Central Asia over the ten-year period. Most of these were in the category of getting a pension. Nine economies, including Kazakhstan and Ukraine, are equalising the ages at which men and women can retire with full pension benefits. The index for the region rose to 84.70 from 80.13, the highest regional average mark outside the advanced Organisation for Economic-Cooperation economies. Bulgaria and Turkey were among the six economies that introduced paid paternity leave.