Published on Let's Talk Development

Equal opportunity, equal outcomes?

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As we mark International Women’s Day this week, and its call for bold pragmatic action to accelerate gender parity, the role of law in fighting for the human rights and gender equality of women is paramount.

When governments use the law to discriminate against women in some way that disadvantages them in relation to men, they clearly violate the letter and spirit of Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reinforces equal protection under the law.

Gender equality obviously has a compelling economic dimension as well. The Women, Business and the Law project (WBL) at the World Bank identifies the legal restrictions which women face (embodied in the Constitution, the Civil Code, family law and other legal instruments) in 173 countries. From our data we know, for instance, that the more legal barriers women face in their countries, girls have lower secondary school enrolments than boys; there are bigger wage differences between women and men; fewer women operate businesses, or take jobs in the workforce compared to men.

This latter observation is particularly important because a key driver of economic growth associated with the narrowing of employment gender gaps has to do with bargaining power within families. Not surprisingly, when women work and earn income, they will be more empowered within their own homes. Beyond direct personal benefits to her, empowered women are also more likely to save more, invest income; and access private credit, all of which are beneficial for economic growth.

Other studies have shown that with greater female power within the household, mothers will invest more in the health and education of their children, thereby planting the seeds for greater opportunity and economic well-being in the next generation.

One area that has received increasing attention in recent years has to do with the economic dimensions of violence against women. Quite aside from the physical, emotional and psychological costs, violence can also have tangible economic consequences, ranging from women’s reduced capacity to function in society, from permanent disabilities and trauma costs to lower economic productivity and the increased fiscal burden placed on public services and employers. Data from a large number of countries indicate that the economic cost of intimate partner violence is typically between 1 to 2 percent of GDP.

So violence against women is not only a serious crime, but a critical factor influencing a woman’s financial autonomy and agency; it has a direct impact on her ability to seek economic opportunities and stand on a par with men in society. In recent years the WBL project has expanded its database to include data on domestic violence and sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. A review of this data suggests at least three important insights:

  • Life expectancy for women is higher where they are legally protected from domestic violence. Considering that as recently as 1990 there were only a handful of countries in the world where such legislation existed, one cannot help but think about a century of premature mortality of women associated with the lack of elemental legal protections, most often from intimate partners. A recent paper attempts to quantify the extent of excess mortality associated with the absence of laws addressing domestic violence against women and the results suggest millions of casualties for 95 economies between 1990 and 2012.
  • Over the past 25 years the number of countries introducing laws addressing domestic violence has risen rapidly from close to zero to 127 today. Significantly, this increase has been encouraged by international and regional human rights conventions and campaigns. 
  • There is much that remains to be done. There are at least 46 countries that have no laws on domestic violence (e.g., Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Tanzania), many of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa regions. Furthermore, there are various forms of domestic violence (physical, emotional, sexual, financial/economic) and coverage of the legislation, where it exists, is incomplete.  Economic violence, for instance, is rarely covered.
Despite the above progress and the growing recognition that societies pay a heavy price for the absence of laws protecting women from violence--from direct costs in terms of health care, social services, police deployment, court and incarceration expenses, to indirect costs in terms of time lost from paid work, second generation effects of violence on children, as well as lost income from premature deaths—there is resistance in many countries to move more aggressively in extending such protections to women.

Nevertheless, there is a shift underway in the debate and the attitudes about the consequences of gender inequality. In particular, we have begun to move away from an emphasis on the desirability of equality of opportunities (e.g, the removal of barriers preventing women to vote) to ensure equality of outcomes (e.g. the speedier elimination of the multiple hidden barriers which have curtailed women’s political empowerment).
Accordingly, the Women, Business and the Law project has moved beyond simply documenting the legal restrictions women face by exploring how such restrictions have disempowered women as evident in our 2016 report. Along the way, more and more people have come to realize that gender equality is about moving to a stage in human evolution where boys and girls have the same rights and opportunities to lead fulfilling lives without being held back by gender discrimination.


Augusto Lopez-Claros

Executive Director of the Global Governance Forum

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