Published on Let's Talk Development

Is this a safe space? Women, Business and the Law introduces the new Safety indicator

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Young girl walkiang to school. | © Arne Hoel / The World Bank Laws and policies are not adequately addressing violence against women. | © Arne Hoel / The World Bank

The World Bank’s recently renewed vision aims to create a world free of poverty on a livable planet. Ask yourself this: would you consider livable a planet where your own safety was threatened every day? One where the basic right to the security of your person would likely be violated at least once during your life? This is the grim reality for an estimated 736 million women—almost one in three—who have been subjected to gender-based violence (GBV) at least once in their life, in most cases at the hand of an intimate partner. This figure does not include sexual harassment. In the United States alone, 38% of women reported being harassed at work, 68% in a public space. In the European Union, one in ten women has experienced cyber-harassment since the age of 15. GBV can occur at any point in a woman’s life, for example, when she is married underage. In 2022, 19% of women aged 20–24 years old, one in five, were married before the age of 18, and 4.8% before age 15. In its most tragic form, GBV can end a woman’s life. In 2021, around 48,800 women and girls worldwide were killed by their intimate partners or other family members.

These numbers show how pervasive violence against women is. Its significant economic costs range from healthcare, legal and criminal justice expenses, and decreased productivity to reduced participation in the workforce. Enacting and implementing effective laws and policies is a fundamental, internationally recognized first step to address this issue and there is a growing demand among policy makers for reliable data to guide the creation and refinement of these measures. To fill this gap, Women, Business and the Law 2024 added a new standalone indicator on women’s safety to its traditional index measuring laws affecting women’s economic opportunities in 190 economies.

Women, Business and the Law’s Safety indicator delves into four dimensions of GBV: child marriage, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and femicide. The indicator measures legal frameworks, frameworks supporting the implementation of the law, and the opinions of experts on the outcome of laws. Astonishing findings reveal that globally, only about one-third of the laws that would be needed to comprehensively address these four forms of violence are in place: Safety’s global average score is 36.3, making Safety the lowest scoring indicator among the ten in the index (figure 1). In fact, as many as 40 economies receive a score of 0, and only 7 receive a score of 100. This means that 183 economies present legal gaps, to the detriment of more than 3 billion women and girls.

Figure 1: Safety is the lowest scoring indicator on the Women, Business and the Law 2.0 legal frameworks index.

A bar chart showing Figure 1: Safety is the lowest scoring indicator on the WBL 2.0 legal frameworks index.

Source: Women, Business and the Law
2024 database.
Note: WBL = Women, Business and the Law.

Addressing women’s safety through legislative action

The massive gaps found in GBV legislation explain Women, Business and the Law 2024’s main finding that the global gender gap for women in the global workplace is much wider than previously thought. These gaps are present in all four areas measured (figure 2).

Child marriage is a fundamental violation of human rights and is associated with adverse socioeconomic consequences. Yet 139 economies do not have adequate legislation addressing it, allowing, for example, underage marriage with parental consent, or not imposing penalties.

Following an uptake in workplace sexual harassment laws in recent years, 151 economies now have legislation addressing sexual harassment in employment. However, women face the threat of sexual harassment in other spaces they occupy such as schools, transportation, and cyberspace. Nevertheless, far fewer economies have laws that address sexual harassment in education (75), public spaces (39), and online (75).

Despite the prevalence of domestic violence worldwide, 84 economies do not address all its forms: physical, sexual, psychological, and economic, or do not provide for criminal penalties or protection orders.

Femicide, the intentional killing of women with a gender-related motivation, is widely recognized as a “shadow pandemic.” Yet only 29 economies explicitly criminalize it.

Figure 2: The Safety Legal Frameworks indicator finds important gaps in all areas measured.

Infographic showing Figure 2: The Safety Legal Frameworks indicator finds important gaps in all areas measured.

Beyond the law: policies for effective implementation

The de facto gap in protections against GBV is equally concerning. Countries have established less than 40% of the frameworks necessary for an effective implementation of the law.

The Safety indicator measures comprehensive mechanisms to address GBV, such as policies on child marriage, guidelines on sexual harassment in employment, policies on sexual harassment in public places, support services for survivors, and training for judicial and police personnel. Findings reveal that only 47 economies have established policies on child marriage; a mere eight economies have policies targeting sexual harassment in public spaces and 47 adopted guidelines for employers on sexual harassment at the workplace. Governments provide or fund support services such as health, psychological, and legal services in 39 economies. Training on investigating and prosecuting cases of femicide is offered in only four economies.

Specialized courts and procedures, designed to ensure gender-sensitivity and specific competencies in handling cases of sexual harassment in employment, are in place in only 55 economies.

To establish accountability, 103 economies have set up mechanisms or agencies to oversee the implementation of legislation and programs on GBV. However, explicit budgetary allocations for violence against women risk mitigation, prevention, and response programs have been made in only 77 economies (figure 3).

Figure 3: The Safety Supportive Frameworks indicator measures policy instruments supporting the implementation of laws addressing child marriage, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and femicide.

A bar chart showing Figure 3 the Safety Supportive Frameworks

Are women safe in practice? Evidence from perception-based surveys

The evidence is clear: laws and policies are not adequately addressing violence against women. Women, Business and the Law’s perception-based surveys of in-country legal experts on whether women are free from GBV confirm this reality. With an average score of 37.3, Safety is the lowest scoring indicator in the opinion of experts. Surveyed experts perceive that globally and on average, fewer than 40% of women are free from GBV, with more than half of experts (55.1%) indicating that “almost no women” or only “some women” are free from GBV.

The addition of the Safety indicator to the Women, Business and the Law index marks a transformative leap. The unique data set is more than just a new metric; it is a window into the real-world challenges women face. This knowledge has the potential to spark real change, inform policies, shift practices, and transform attitudes so that women can pursue their livelihoods, free from fear, in a safe and supportive environment. It is a journey toward creating a livable planet—a place where women don’t just survive, they flourish. 

Marina Elefante

Private Sector Development Specialist at the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law

Shantel Marekera

Analyst, Women, Business and the Law

Nayantara Vohra

Consultant, Women, Business and the Law, World Bank Group

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