Over the past 50 years, there has been tremendous progress in improving women's legal rights. Indeed, half of the gaps in women's legal rights to property and equal legal capacity were closed during the period 1960 to 2010 in 100 developed and developing countries, according to two new studies highlighted in the Women, Business and the Law 2014 report, launched on September 24. The challenge now is that some sticky areas persist where laws haven't changed or have even regressed. Tackling these remaining gaps is crucial given that strengthening women's legal rights goes hand in hand with better economic opportunities, health, and education — on top of being an inherent right — points made forcefully in the op.ed. by Sri Mulyani Idrawati, Managing Director of the World Bank.
A snapshot of progress made
In preparing these studies, we compiled a new database, 50 Years of Women's Legal Rights, which shows just how many countries have improved women's property rights and capacity to act in their own name, tracking 17 legal indicators across 50 years for 100 countries. Reforms in these areas can be politically sensitive — redefining inheritance, control over marital property, and whether or not wives need permission to work or enter legal contracts in their own name. But 82 countries either gave women equal rights in these areas or took a positive step in this direction.
That half of the gender gaps in legal equality have been taken off the books is good news for millions of women across the world. In 1960 (or in a few cases, when a country's data first became available), only 25 countries treated women and men equally in the areas monitored by our first study, but by 2010, it was 53 countries (see figure 1). Progress was particularly marked in many of the countries that started with the most inequalities — South Africa and Benin closed all 9 gaps, Zimbabwe removed 9 of the 10, Lesotho removed 8 of the 10, and Spain removed all of the 7. But five countries ended with more legal gender gaps than they had begun with, while 13 made no changes. And 29, while introducing reforms in some areas, left other inequalities standing. Nigeria and Swaziland, while each introduced a reform, still have gender gaps on the books in 8 and 6 of the legal areas covered in the study.
Figure 1: Most countries removed the number of legal gender gaps
On a regional basis, some are doing a lot better than others (see figure 2). Eastern Europe and Central Asia began with a few gaps and closed them. Countries in the OECD started with more, but also eliminated them. Latin America and the Caribbean has made substantial progress. Sub-Saharan Africa, which started with the highest share of gender gaps, has closed more than half of them. And East Asia and Pacific has halved their gaps too. But both the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia saw little improvement overall.
Figure 2: Some regions made a lot more progress than others
Possible ways to close the remaining gaps
What can be done to close the gaps that still remain? The reality is that these may be more challenging to close than the previous ones. One reason is that economic development is unlikely to be enough to close important women's legal and economic rights that remain. In both middle-income and low-income countries, the average number of gender gaps in countries' constitutions and statutes is the same, at 1.6, meaning that growth is unlikely to drive many future changes.
Another reason is the conflicts still taking place in a number of countries. Although few reforms are introduced during conflicts, the post-conflict period offers opportunities as constitutions get rewritten and statutes reformed. However, while there are exceptions — such as Rwanda's widespread support for women's rights and the strengthening of non-discrimination in Kenya's 2010 constitution — the evidence shows too many of these opportunities aren't taken. Rather, this is a time when many countries have both introduced formal recognition of customary or religious law and exempted them from non-discrimination principles in the constitution.
However, countries can get in self-reinforcing cycles. One way is with international agreements. As of now, all but a handful of countries have ratified the 1979 UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), excluding Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States. It is notable that the pace of reforms more than doubled in the five years after a country ratified CEDAW than in the preceding 15 years. Another way is with greater women's political participation. Indeed, our analysis shows that a higher number of women legislators have contributed to closing the gaps in women's economic and legal rights. Plus they can inspire other women to go into politics, thereby reinforcing the pressures for reform.
Gender reforms offer development gains
Much is at stake in closing the remaining gender gaps. Indeed, our second study shows that better legal rights for women translate into clear development gains on three fronts:
• Economic opportunities. Strengthening property and inheritance rights (especially for girls) is associated with higher rates of labor force participation, more wage work, and less vulnerable employment for women.
• Health. Recognizing women as heads of household and not exempting religious and customary laws from non-discrimination principles reduces maternal and infant mortality rates and rates of adolescent fertility.
• Education. Recognizing women as heads of households, giving them equal inheritance rights, and allowing them to work outside the home without asking permission boosts girls' enrollment in schools.
So half is good — most countries have successfully reformed laws to expand women's opportunities. But fixing the other half will be even harder. We hope the new database will help us gain even more insight into what needs to be done to tackle the remaining gaps.