Published on Let's Talk Development

Empowering Women by Making Legal Rights Work -- A Winning Idea

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Madame Ngetsi wanted to start a business in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  What was her first step was in making her dreams a reality? Did she go to a bank for a loan, a notary to formalize her documentation, or the company registry to register her company? In fact, her first stop was to go to her husband to get legal permission to start her business. By law, Madame Ngetsi has to have written legal permission to register a business, formalize a document, open a bank account, and register land—a requirement that doesn’t apply to her husband.

You might wonder where this restriction exists. The reality is that it’s not in commercial codes, but in the family code, which is all too often ignored by those seeking to improve the business environment. You may also think that this law is not enforced in practice, but it is. The good news is that these laws are starting to change, and there are steps that women can take to protect their rights—although they still face enormous practical constraints beyond the legal ones.

What are innovative ideas to catalyze Africa’s potential for greater growth and poverty reduction? Project leaders and experts from across the World Bank presented their proposals during two days of workshops. The presentation on ways to overcome legal constraints to women’s empowerment won the Biggest Idea Award.

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Mapping the Restrictions
So exactly how pervasive are these restrictions in Africa? This is an issue that we tackle in our new book, Empowering Women: Legal Rights and Economic Opportunities in Africa, we map the legal constraints, like those faced by Madame Ngetsi, across all 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. We also demonstrate how these constraints matter for economic outcomes for women.  Without the same access to property or the same legal capacity to enter contracts, women do not have the ability—or incentive—to access finance or start and grow their businesses.  While Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of women who are self-employed, women’s ability to make the leap into becoming an employer is limited. And the share of women employers is lower precisely in those countries where they face greater legal gaps in their economic rights.

The challenge is not simply one that will subside with development.  The incidence of gaps in these legal rights is as prevalent in middle-income countries as low-income countries.  The agenda is one that will take active engagement.  In fact, we are now tracking legal changes across 100 countries over the past 50 years, together with the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law project. The hope is to better understand why and how reform happened and how we can support legal changes in countries. This work has already fed into ongoing operational work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, and Tunisia.

Practical Steps for Women to Take

Reforming discriminatory laws on the books is the task for legislators—and in some cases the courts, as they strike down laws as violating constitutional principles of equality or the terms of ratified international conventions (such as the Convention of the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination Against Women).  But there are also clear practical steps you can take, such as those listed below. Most restrictions are associated with marriage, so making informed choices regarding your marriage are key.

1) Where there are good laws on the books, formalize your marriage by registering it so you can take advantage of these laws.
2) Choose a good marital regime, if available, that gives you equal rights over household property.
3) Register your business in your name.
4) Register land in your name or at the very least jointly with your spouse.
5) Write a will and encourage your spouse to write a will to avoid discriminatory laws that apply in the absence of a will.

The time to act is now if we want to make sure that women like Madame Ngetsi, and all her children and grandchildren, are allowed to contribute to the economic growth of their country unconditionally.  All the women we have met working and living in the region are dynamic and hard-working, and they deserve a legal system that recognizes their energy and innovation.  We need to move to make this idea a reality.


Tazeen Hasan

Senior Legal Specialist, Gender and Development Unit

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