World Bank Report Finds Gendered Legal Barriers in 155 Countries

By Grace Bennett

According to a recent World Bank report entitled, Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal, 155 countries currently have one or more laws which work to restrict women’s economic opportunities.

The report studied the legal codes of 173 nations, and attempted to pinpoint legal barriers to female opportunity, and equality (identified as potentially restrictive laws, which do not apply equally to women and men). The report considered 21 areas of possible legal obstructions, including laws relating to women’s ability to sign contracts, own property, open a bank account, choose where to live, or disobey her husband. The total number of legal obstructions, or laws that apply differently to women, as compared to men, totaled 943 across the 173 states.

The 155 states identified as legally restrictive came from every continent, and worked to restrict women’s opportunity in a variety of ways. For example, 32 of the states studied place restrictions on women’s ability to obtain a passport, 29 ban women from working at night, 17 states limit female’s travel outside the home, and 18 restrict women’s ability to get a job without the permission of her husband.

The report’s findings clearly raise important concerns about the legal status of women in nations across the world. The report itself works hard to stress the significance of legal barriers, and how they work to impede women, families, and economies.

Where legal differences exist, women face an uphill battle to find the opportunities and make the choices necessary for the success of themselves and their families. Legal barriers impede women’s ability to earn livable incomes, find practical education, and fruitfully pursue passions and skills. While these barriers are very real, and entirely worthy of scrutiny and reform, it is important to keep in mind that women face a variety of gender-based barriers, many of which transcend written law.

The World Bank emphasizes that while the report examines regulations present in a nation’s legal code, it makes no claim as to whether those laws are forcefully upheld or implemented. Frequently, states lack the resources, or the will, to follow up on violations of women’s legal rights (such as instances of outlawed domestic abuse), and thus, these laws do little to aid women’s prospects. Additionally, legal rights are only a small part of the convoluted puzzle that makes up gender equality. Social norms and pressures play an essential role in realizing gender equality, and combatting patriarchal or masochistic tendencies. Even with these qualifiers, however, the report retains its usefulness as a bench mark for how frequently gender discrimination is institutionalized in nation-states. 

One of the more hopeful discoveries of the report concerns reforms made in recent years regarding legal equality. The World Bank discovered that 94 legal reforms were made by 67 separate states over the past two years. Most of these reforms occurred in developing countries, and often they corresponded to women’s ability to get a job, or the protection of women against violence. These reforms represent the necessary changes that must occur throughout the world if the global community is ever to know gender parity, and they are certainly encouraging. The most substantial finding, however, remains that 90% of the 173 nations studied have at least one law restricting women’s opportunity. This finding should affront and infuriate us, and further the international community’s commitment to demanding equality of opportunity for all women.