Freedom of movement may be taken for granted in many places, at least from a legal perspective. However, legal provisions limiting women’s freedom to decide where to go, travel and live still exist in 30% of the 187 economies examined by the study, Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform.
Mobility is a necessary precondition for accessing income and resources and hence for empowering women both economically and socially. It is strongly correlated with women’s asset ownership and labor force participation. The Going Places indicator introduced in this study measures the gender gap in this area by examining whether the law allows women to obtain a passport, travel abroad, travel outside the home and chose where to live in the same way as men. While most regions score high on this indicator, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) still has room for improvement.
In the MENA region, six out of 19 economies have a perfect score, granting women and men equal mobility rights, but 11 have at least one legal restriction in this area, and two score zero. In economies that have restrictions, the practice of male guardianship over women underpins such legal provisions. Women must get some form of permission from fathers, husbands or close male family relatives, designated as legal guardians, to get a passport or to travel outside the home or the country. In many cases, they are also required by law to live where their husbands chose to live even if it is outside the country.
Despite the significant gap displayed by the MENA region in the Going Places indicator, progress has been made in some economies within the past decade. In Kuwait, following a decision by the constitutional court in 2008, overturning Art. 15 of the Passport Law, the husband’s consent is no longer needed for a married woman to have a separate passport. In Iraq, the 2015 Passport Law repealed the requirement that women under 40 be accompanied by their guardian when applying for a passport.
To accelerate the pace of change in the region, policy makers should account for the limitations that the guardianship related requirements impose on women, especially with regards to their freedom of movement. MENA has the world’s highest female unemployment rate, and unless women can move freely in the same way as men, this is less likely to change.