Legal Reform Improves Women’s Welfare

February 25, 2014

  • Equal rights for women lead to better employment opportunities for women, lower infant and maternal mortality and better education for girls
  • Database tracks global progress from 1960 to 2010 in removing discriminatory laws on women’s property rights and ability to make legal decisions.
  • International conventions and greater women’s political participation are important catalysts for change

Removing discriminatory laws is linked to greater participation of women in schools and the labor force, higher rates of wage employment for women, and lower adolescent pregnancy. It also cuts down on maternal and infant mortality.

Those findings were discussed by Mary Hallward-Driemeier, lead economist in the World Bank’s research department, at February’s Policy Research Talk, a monthly event held by the department to foster a dialogue between researchers and operational colleagues.

“Expanding opportunity for half of the world’s population is a no brainer,” said World Bank Research Director Asli Demirguc-Kunt, who hosted the event. “It also makes economic sense. Gender economics is smart economics.”

Hallward-Driemeier’s research (here and here) draws on a database that tracks the global progress from 1960 to 2010 in removing discriminatory laws on women’s property rights, as well as women’s ability to make legal decisions. It shows that the number of legal barriers to women’s economic participation dropped by half around the globe, but progress is uneven.

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.

" “Expanding opportunity for half of the world’s population is a no brainer. It also makes economic sense. Gender economics is smart economics." "

Asli Demirguc-Kunt

World Bank Research Director

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 research finds that economic growth doesn’t automatically lead to more equal rights for women, especially in middle- and high-income countries. 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.

Evaluations of specific reforms reinforce the findings that greater rights helps expand economic opportunities. An analysis of Ethiopia’s family law, for example, shows that strengthening women's bargaining position within the household, including removing constraints on their ability to pursue employment opportunities, makes it more likely for women to postpone marriage and work full-time outside the home.

“The weak relationship between income and reforms indicate that proactive engagement is needed to improve women’s rights,” Hallward-Driemeier said. “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.”

Jeni Klugman, director of gender and development in the World Bank Group and a discussant at the event, welcomed the research program and underlined that investing in evidence about what works is critical, noting that a new umbrella facility is supporting more than 20 initiatives across all regions to understand what works to boost women’s economic opportunities. They include experiments on hiring biases in Eastern Europe and studies on how to youth employment programs more responsive to the needs of adolescent girls and young women.

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, 2013.