Growing up in Iowa, I was often judged solely on appearance. In stores, strangers would make karate-chop gestures at me, inspired by the popular TV series “Kung Fu.” When I played quarterback for my high school team, opponents were not above slamming me to the dirt and then piling on racial slurs.
These incidents embarrassed me and made me self-conscious. But they are trifling indignities compared with the discrimination that many people around the world face based solely on their sex, age, race or sexual orientation.
I raise this in light of the law Uganda enacted this week, which could imprison for life those convicted of homosexuality, and the increased violence against gays in Nigeria after an anti-gay law took effect there this year.
These countries are in the news now, but our focus should be much broader: 81 other countries — in the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East — have passed laws that make homosexuality illegal. In the United States, although Arizona’s governor vetoed a bill this week that would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay people, nine states have laws that limit how public school teachers can talk about homosexuality. More than 100 countries discriminate against women. And an even greater number of countries still have laws that discriminate against minority groups.
Institutionalized discrimination is bad for people and for societies. Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies. There is clear evidence that when societies enact laws that prevent productive people from fully participating in the workforce, economies suffer.
Discrimination against women is a case in point. A World Bank study last year of 143 economies found that 128 countries still have at least one legal difference in how men and women are treated, which constrains women’s economic opportunities. These barriers include laws that make it impossible for a woman to independently obtain an ID card, own or use property, access credit or get a job.
In 15 economies, husbands can prevent their wives from working, although in the past two years Ivory Coast, Mali and Togo have reformed such restrictions.