Published on Let's Talk Development

Where do we stand on gender equality on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

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Woman in Nepal holsing "Equal?" Sign. | © Stephan Bachenheimer / World Bank Woman in Nepal holsing "Equal?" Sign. | © Stephan Bachenheimer / World Bank

Seventy-five years ago, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Anchored on the premise that all individuals are born with equal dignity and are entitled to enjoy their rights and freedoms without discrimination,  the UDHR serves as one of the cornerstones for the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law (WBL) project. WBL assesses legal barriers to women’s economic participation across eight indicators: Mobility, Workplace, Pay, Marriage, Parenthood, Entrepreneurship, Assets and Pension. However, despite the values enshrined in the UDHR, gender equality remains elusive for most women around the globe.  Today, according to the 2023 Women, Business and the Law report, there are 2.4 billion working-age women who live in economies that do not grant them the same rights as men.

Women’s basic human rights and economic opportunities are severely hindered by legal inequalities.

The Women, Business and the Law has analyzed laws and regulations impacting women's economic opportunities in 190 economies over the past 14 years. While the right to work and to freely choose employment is a critical human right included in the UDHR, to this day, women in 19 economies cannot get a job in the same way as men.  Even more so, 65 economies restrict women’s access to high-paying industrial jobs on par with men. Research shows that preventing women from choosing their employment freely is negatively associated with their chances of employment. Discrimination in employment further undermines women’s ability to enter and remain in the labor force, impacting their career choices and violating their fundamental “right to work” as outlined in the UDHR. Women, Business and the Law 2023 shows that 30 economies still do not prohibit discrimination in employment based on gender. 

The UDHR and the ILO Convention No. 100 of 1951 emphasize the importance of equal pay for equal work. However, globally, 93 economies still lack laws mandating equal compensation for their work.  This means that more than half of the economies assessed by Women, Business and the Law do not provide women with fair and equal compensation for their work. Alarmingly, progress on equal pay laws has been slow, with only 28 economies introducing such laws since 2011. 

Despite progress, the world is still far from legal gender equality. It is shocking to note that 176 economies maintain legal barriers that impede women’s ability to fulfill their basic human rights and participate fully in their countries’ economies.  Only 14 countries, all high income, score 100 on the WBL index, indicating equal rights for women across all indicators. Gender equality of economic opportunity is highest in OECD high-income countries, with an average score of 95.3 points, while the Middle East and North Africa region lags behind, with an average score of 53.2 points. Despite uneven progress across regions over the past 53 years, significant improvement has been made since the signing of the Universal Human Rights Declaration.  The global Women, Business and the Law 2023 index average is 77.1 out of 100, compared to 45.8 in 1971.


A map of the the Global Average Woment, Business and the Low Score is 77.1

Despite the slow pace, economies around the world continue to inch toward gender equality.

Legal reforms have shown a catch-up effect in countries with historically lower levels of gender equality. The Global Indicator Briefs series delved into reform efforts as documented by Women, Business and the Law, such as the ones undertaken by the Democratic Republic of CongoEthiopiaIndiaKenyaSão Tomé and PríncipeSouth Africa, and Togo. This effect has been observed across the board, with legal reforms impacting women’s legal capacity within the household and marriage, protecting them from domestic violence and sexual harassment, and introducing important legislation to ensure their full participation in the labor market while balancing work and family life.

While laws are crucial, they alone cannot secure women’s basic human rights. It is essential to adopt legal reforms and implement corresponding mechanisms that eliminate barriers to gender equality.  This sends a strong signal of commitment to the principles and values set out by the UDHR. There is still a lot to be done, and together we can achieve our common goal of reaching equality for all. Governments, policy makers, civil society organizations and individuals can utilize Women, Business and the Law data and findings to assess the legal environment in their countries and promote reforms to advance women’s human rights and economic empowerment. This includes enacting legislation to implement gender equality measures, improving institutional enforcement mechanisms and promoting capacity building.

On the anniversary of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, it is crucial to recognize the ongoing struggle for gender equality. By embracing legal, social, and economic gender equality,  we can unlock the full potential of half of the world’s population. Together, through comprehensive reforms and collective efforts, we can strive towards achieving equality for all. 


Rebecca Ego

Analyst, Women, Business and the Law , The World Bank

Aylén Rodríguez Ferrari

Analyst, Women, Business and the Law, World Bank

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