Want to make your country richer and safer? Fix laws that keep women down, World Bank says.

The World

The World Bank is not known for its bra-burning campaigns for gender equality, but its latest report, Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal, shows how discrimination against women can hurt countries’ bottom lines. Not surprisingly, improving women’s economic opportunities can make everyone richer — and safer.

In the biggest report of its kind, the bank surveyed 173 economies. It found that legal gender differences are widespread:

  • 155 of the 173 have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities.

  • In 100 economies, women face gender-based job restrictions.

  • In 18 economies, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.

  • 46 economies have no laws protecting women from domestic violence.

These are sobering statistics, especially coming on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, when 189 countries signed a pledge to end gender discrimination. But the fact that the World Bank has elevated the issue is a positive sign for many veteran campaigners.

“[It is] making a strong statement, which is that discrimination in law affects economic development, and you are not going to get where you want to be as a world without focusing on things like women’s inheritance rights, women’s education, women’s rights to work or property rights,” says Yasmeen Hassan, executive director of the NGO Equality Now.

The World Bank does highlight plenty of progress:

  • Many economies have introduced laws to address domestic violence (118 of them over the last 25 years)

  • Maternity leave is on the rise, and 167 economies now provide it.

  • In Mexico, a new law makes payments for childcare tax deductible.

  • India has introduced quotas for boardrooms: At least one board member of every listed company must be a woman.

“We have seen there has been tremendous progress in changing a vast number of laws,” Yasmeen Hassan says. But she adds, “the ones that are sanctioned by religion are the ones that are hardest to change.”

She cites Saudi Arabia as the toughest country. It follows the Wahhabi system of Islamic law that enshrines the principle of male guardianship.

“[As a woman], you can’t get educated, you can’t get medical treatment — even if it’s an emergency, a male guardian has to sign for you.”

She points out that because she herself is a divorced woman, if she were Saudi, her young son would be considered her male guardian. “It’s pretty unique in the world,” she says.

There have been improvements for Saudi women recently; most notably women can now vote in some Saudi elections — if they can find someone male to drive them to the polls.

Find out more here about laws that affect women around the world.

Infographic on women's employment
Credit:

Courtesy of World Bank Group