Economic Development = Equal Rights for Women?

September 24, 2013


  • New database, 50 Years of Women’s Legal Rights, tracks global progress from 1960 to 2010 in removing discriminatory laws on women’s property rights and ability to make legal decisions.
  • The database, which is featured in the new Women, Business and the Law 2014 report, shows the number of legal barriers to women’s economic participation dropped by half around the globe, but progress is uneven
  • International conventions and greater women’s political participation are important catalysts for change

September 24, 2013 -- Economic growth doesn’t automatically lead to more equal rights for women, especially in middle- and high-income countries, according to new World Bank Group research that examines women’s legal and economic rights in 100 countries over a 50-year period.

Higher gross domestic product per capita generally isn’t associated with greater property rights or whether women can enter into legal agreements in their own name, even though growth in recent years has made reforms more likely in low-income countries, according to the research papers (here and here) analyzing global trends from 1960 to 2010. In fact, the average number of constraints in middle-income countries in 2010 was the same as that of low-income countries.

By contrast, the removal of discriminatory laws has a lot to do with two social factors: the ratification of international rights conventions and more women in political office. For example, five years after a country adopts the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the most comprehensive international agreement on human rights for women, its pace of reform almost doubles that of the previous 15 years.

And, if women hold at least a quarter of all political offices at the national level, a country is more likely to recognize married women as head of households and enact reforms to allow women to control assets. It’s also more likely that married women will no longer need their husbands’ permission to open bank accounts, sign contracts and initiate legal proceedings.

“The weak relationship between income and reforms indicate that proactive engagement is needed to improve women’s rights,” said Mary Hallward-Driemeier, lead author of the papers and lead economist at the World Bank’s research department. “The extra effort will be worth it, because better rights for women lead to important development outcomes that can benefit society as a whole. Our analysis of the database shows reforms help improve outcomes in women’s employment, health and education.”

The research finds improving gender equality has broad development impact, such as greater participation of women in the labor force, especially in the non-farm sector. It also leads to higher wages for girls and women, higher school enrollment and lower adolescent pregnancy, as well as lower maternal and infant mortality.

The project, 50 Years of Women’s Legal Rights, was jointly conducted by the research department and the Financial and Private Sector Development Network, as part of the Women, Business and the Law 2014: Removing Restrictions to Enhance Gender Equality. The database and accompanying research papers, which were funded by the U.K’s Department for International Development, were released on Sept.24.

Overall, the Women, Business and the Law report, the third in a series, finds that legal and regulatory barriers to women’s economic inclusion eased in the last 50 years, but many laws still remain on thebooks. And reforms aimed at improving women’s property rights and legal decision-making ability are continuing.

Just in the last two years, 40 countries introduced reforms to strengthen women’s economic rights across a wide range of areas.  Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, for example, recently removed restrictions that forbid women from getting a job without spousal approval. Mali did the same, while also introducing equal inheritance rights for spouses and strengthening married women's property rights.

“Taken together, the 50 Years of Women’s Legal Rights and the Women, Business and the Law databases show that the pace of reform on women’s legal equality has been, and continues to be, accelerating, but much more remains to be done,” said Sarah Iqbal, lead author of the Women, Business and the Law 2014 report.


" The weak relationship between income and reforms indicate that proactive engagement is needed to improve women’s rights. "

Mary Hallward-Driemeier

Lead Author of the papers and Lead Economist at the World Bank’s research department

More equal rights for women worldwide

The good news is that overall, the world made huge progress in reducing legal constraints on women: half of the discriminatory laws on the books in the 1960s had been removed by 2010, the study finds. The rich countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development removed all gender gaps on the books from the 1960s and 1970s. So did countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Latin America, East Asia and even Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest rates of gender gaps in 1960, cut the number of discriminatory laws by half.

Of the 100 countries covered in the study, 25 countries in the 1960s did not have any gender inequality based on the legal measures tracked by the authors.By 2010, the number rose to 53 countries. During the same period, only 18 countries did not close at least one gender gap in economic and legal rights. Progress was striking in many of the countries that began with the most number of gender-inequality constraints. South Africa and Benin, for example, closed all nine gender gaps tracked in the study. Spain removed the seven constraints it had.

As a result, women enjoy more equal economic rights. For example, more countries have dropped the requirement that wives obtain their husbands’ permission before signing legal contracts, and more countries support the joint titling of properties owned by both spouses. One interesting pattern: property rights for unmarried girls were generally granted earlier than for married women, indicating that men tend to be more supportive of their daughters’ rights over their wives’ – at least initially.

Uneven progress

The progress isn’t even. In two regions, South Asia and Middle East and North Africa, the number of constraints hardly budged, as some countries removed discriminatory laws but others introduced new ones. More girls and women have property rights, and can now initiate legal proceedings or sign contracts. But the two regions, plus sub-Sahara Africa, still haven’t made much progress granting married women equal inheritance rights and head-of-household status.

The momentum for the reform of women’s rights suffers during conflicts. While post-conflict periods often usher in new constitutions and statutory reforms, closing gender gaps is often a missed opportunity. There are exceptions, such as Kenya’s new 2010 constitution. But more could be done to include women’s economic rights in post-conflict reforms, Hallward-Driemeier said.

In addition, gender gaps are often caused by provisions in constitutions, making it difficult to change. The constitutions of several countries formally recognize customary and religious rules as prevailing on issues of property, marriage and inheritance – and exempt those categories from non-discrimination principles.

Building momentum

That’s why, Hallward-Driemeier said, momentum brought on by international conventions can make such a huge difference. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, approved by the U.N. in 1979, encourages governments to review family laws, and requires mandatory reporting and monitoring on how to improve women’s rights. During the process, civil society groups and women’s networks also have challenged those laws.

Similarly, having more female legislators contributed to closing the gap in women’s economic and legal rights. They can also inspire women’s broader participation in the political process, reinforcing the pressures for reform.

“We have made tremendous progress in the last 50 years to end legal discrimination against women, but the progress is not complete,” said Asli Demirguc-Kunt, the Bank’s research director. “More work needs to be done to give women equal legal protection in more countries.”