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Only 10 countries consider women equal — that must change

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Equality is supposed to be the birthright of every person on Earth. But with discriminatory laws on the books in all but 10 countries, equality remains elusive for girls and women around the world.

New data from the World Bank, which we are proud to have helped produce and support, has revealed the alarming extent to which gender inequality is enshrined in law: of 190 countries surveyed, 180 do not afford women the same legal rights as men. 

Discriminatory laws affect every aspect of a woman’s life — from where she lives and works, to when and whom she marries, to whether she can open a bank account, inherit property or apply for a passport. 

In Senegal the decision of where a married couple lives legally rests with the husband. In Jordan only men can be the legal head of a household and in Mali a woman legally owes obedience to her husband.

The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law analyzes progress towards women’s legal rights over the last 50 years, scoring countries across a range of indicators related to the laws women encounter throughout their working lives. Only 10 countries scored a perfect 100 this year, up from just eight the year before: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal and Sweden. Ireland and Portugal made the cut this year after reforming parental leave and equalizing the remarriage process for men and women, respectively. 

While this is clearly not enough progress, it is also true that important legal reforms have been made. In fact, more than 1,500 reforms have been passed over the last five decades, and progress has been made in every region of the world.

In the last year alone, Vietnam removed all job restrictions for women, Madagascar toughened domestic violence penalties, Suriname introduced paid leave for new parents and New Zealand enhanced laws mandating equal pay for work of equal value. But the biggest push for reform came from the Middle East and North Africa, the region with the most room for improvement. The United Arab Emirates removed some travel and movement restrictions and became the first and only country in the region to offer paid parental leave.

But the pace of progress has been too slow, too incremental and stubbornly uneven. Women today still only have three-quarters the legal rights of men on average, and only half in the Middle East and North Africa.

Legal restrictions remain particularly pervasive in the areas of pay and parenthood. More than 1.6 billion women are still legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men, 88 countries do not mandate equal pay for equal work and parental leave remains a stumbling block for many countries, including high-income OECD countries like the United States and United Kingdom.

We need to accelerate the pace of legal reforms because women’s rights can’t wait.

The COVID-19 pandemic has set off an economic catastrophe for women around the world — widening the gender pay gap, driving women out of the workforce in droves and pushing them below the poverty line. Jobs held by women have been nearly twice as vulnerable to losses as those held by men and, if nothing is done to reverse this trend, estimates indicate that global GDP will drop by more than $1 trillion by 2030. 

Legal reforms are not a cure all for gender inequality issues and the current crises affecting girls and women worldwide. But they are a key component of the solution. The evidence is clear — women have better jobs and higher political representation where laws treat them more equally. Legal gender equality is a prerequisite for a gender-equal world and an inclusive, resilient economic recovery.

Governments have the legislative power to dismantle legal gender discrimination by undertaking reforms and influencing the uptake of good laws that protect the rights of girls and women. But too often, that power goes unused.

The Generation Equality Forum in Paris later this year is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalize the global women’s movement and spur action and investment toward gender equality. This moment can serve as a catalyst for governments to make bold commitments to reform discriminatory laws and remove legal barriers to women’s economic empowerment.

It’s long past time for governments to level the law and remove legal barriers to gender equality. Girls and women deserve the same rights and choices in life as boys and men. They deserve equality under the law. They deserve to be equal everywhere.

Michelle Milford Morse is the Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy at the United Nations Foundation. Tea Trumbic is the Program Manager for the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law project.

Tags equality Gender equality gender gap International Women's Day paid leave women rights Women's rights

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