Shutting doors on women: How countries are legally preventing half their population from reaching their full economic potential

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When Niloufar Ardalan, a 30-year-old professional athlete and the captain of the Iranian women’s indoor soccer team, recently got the opportunity to represent her country and play in the Asia Cup, she and her teammates must have been thrilled. But to play in the prestigious championship, Ardalan faced a major legal hurdle — one that you might not expect: It came not from immigration law or employment law, but from family law.

Iranian law prevents married women from traveling outside the country without the permission of their husbands. Ardalan’s husband — a well-known sports journalist — wanted Ardalan to be present for their son’s first day of school so he acted within the bounds of the country’s laws. He prohibited Ardalan from traveling to Malaysia with the rest of her teammates, sparking a frenzy on Twitter and Facebook and sending shockwaves through international media. Legally, there was nothing Ardalan or her team could do. She was forced stay behind. 

Such a legal restriction is hardly unique to Iran. In many countries around the world, a woman’s gender — often coupled with her marital status — can legally prevent her from taking actions she otherwise could take if she were a man. Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal, a new World Bank Group report launched around the same time Ardalan was denied the opportunity to play in the Asia Cup, tracks such restrictions in 173 economies worldwide. 
Getting To Equal: Women, Business and the Law


The report found that in six of 173 economies covered, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, a married woman cannot travel outside the country in the same way as a married man. In 30 economies, married women cannot be head of household in the same way as married men. In 32 countries, wives cannot apply for a passport in the same way as their husbands. Countries such as Spain and Switzerland had laws on the books as recent as 1978 and 1984 that required married women to obtain their husbands permission to work outside the home.

Many of these restricted actions have significant implications for the government services or tax benefits one can obtain. Moreover, they are often critical for people to get and perform their jobs or start and run businesses. Take Ardalan, for instance, whose ability to perform her job was so handily taken from her. The door was slammed shut on a rare career opportunity to show the world her capabilities as the best soccer player in Iran.

Unfortunately, legal inequalities faced by women don’t stop there. In 35 economies, women do not have equal inheritance rights with men. In 100 economies, women cannot work in the same jobs as men.

Overall, Women, Business and the Law found that 90 percent of countries impose at least one law that impedes women’s economic opportunities. Laws discriminating against women are associated with a whole host of negative outcomes: fewer girls attending secondary schools relative to boys, fewer women working or running their own businesses and a higher gender wage gap. On top of that, discriminatory laws can stunt economic growth, robbing countries of billions of dollars. Will these laws ever change?

The answer is yes. Restrictions on women are being dropped over time and the pace of reform is heartening. In the last two years alone, 65 economies made 94 legal reforms towards greater gender equality. Ardalan’s story may even ignite change in her own country. Since she was denied the chance to play in the Asia Cup, Ardalan and many of her compatriots have spoken out. Married men have taken to social media with the hashtag #ItsMensTurn to show their support for reform. Some have even posted pictures of their amended marriage contracts, which they’ve changed to grant their wives full equality to take actions such as travel, work, study and apply for passports without anyone’s permission. With some grassroots activism, improved national policies and international commitments, we can help our world get to equal. 



Katrin Schulz

Private Sector Development Specialist, World Bank Group

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