Despite Progress, Laws Restricting Economic Opportunity for Women Are Widespread Globally, says WBG Report

September 9, 2015

Violence and lack of jobs are amongst key barriers for women in developing countries

WASHINGTON, September 9, 2015 – Legal barriers to the economic advancement of women are widespread, shutting them out of certain jobs, limiting their access to credit, and leaving them unprotected against violence in many economies around the world, says the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law 2016 report, released today.

The report, which examines laws that impede women’s employment and entrepreneurship, finds that women face job restrictions in 100 of the 173 economies monitored. For example, women are barred from working in certain factory jobs in 41 economies; in 29 economies they are prohibited from working at night; and in 18 economies they cannot get a job without permission from their husband. Only half of the economies covered have paternity leave, and less than a third have parental leave, limiting men’s ability to share childcare responsibilities. In 30 economies, married women cannot choose where to live and in 19 they are legally obligated to obey their husbands.

These and a range of other disparities monitored by the report have far-reaching consequences, negatively affecting not only women themselves, but their children, their communities, and their countries’ economies. The report counts nearly 950 instances of gender inequality, under 7 indicators.

“It is a grave injustice when societies place legal restrictions on women’s ability to get a job, or participate in economic life. Women – like men – deserve every opportunity to fulfill their potential, no matter where they live. These restrictions are also bad economics. Women represent over half the world’s population. We can’t afford to leave their potential untapped – whether because laws fail to protect women against violence, or exclude them from financial opportunities, property ownership or professions,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “When women can work, manage incomes and run businesses, the benefits extend far beyond the individual level – to children, communities and entire economies. We will not rest until women have full economic rights everywhere.”

Lower gender legal equality is associated with fewer girls attending secondary schools, fewer women working or running businesses, and a higher gender wage gap. Where laws do not provide protection from domestic violence, women are likely to have shorter life spans. But where governments support childcare, women are more likely to be employed.

"It’s highly significant that while almost every country on earth testifies that women should not face discrimination, invariably in practice women do, although the extent varies greatly. By carefully gathering evidence from around the world on the real state of economic life, we can see clearly how women face numerous restrictions in the workplace and how removing these can unleash energy and growth. It is heartening to see that some countries, such as Kenya, are pushing ahead with reforms to level the playing field,” said Kaushik Basu, World Bank Chief Economist and Senior Vice President. “I hope this report will motivate governments everywhere to treat men and women equally in the workforce and help to achieve a collective ambition of countries and a world without extreme poverty and with opportunity for all.”

The report finds that 18 economies have no legal restrictions on women in the areas examined. They are: Armenia; Canada; Dominican Republic; Estonia; Hungary; Kosovo; Malta; Mexico; Namibia; Netherlands; New Zealand; Peru; Puerto Rico; Serbia, Slovak Republic; South Africa; Spain; and Taiwan, China.

Under the theme of Getting to Equal, the report finds that, in the past two years, most of the reforms leveling the playing field for women took place in developing economies. In terms of regions, 19 reforms were enacted in Europe and Central Asia, 18 in Sub-Saharan Africa, 16 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 12 in the Middle East and North Africa and 11 in East Asia and the Pacific. South Asia enacted the fewest reforms, with 3.

In high-income Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) economies, where women enjoy broad-based equality, efforts to promote women’s economic opportunities continued, with 12 economies enacting 15 reforms in the past two years.

The report also finds that laws protecting women from domestic violence are becoming more common around the world, partially in response to growing international efforts and commitments on violence against women. Today, 127 economies have legislation against domestic violence, compared to almost none 25 years ago. Yet, that leaves 46 economies among the ones measured that still do not have these legal protections.

“Despite the advances, inequalities persist. In the past two years, only 4 economies (Croatia, Hungary, Kenya and Nicaragua) have reformed laws improving women’s property rights and 2 economies (Egypt and Mozambique) have enacted laws to protect girls from sexual harassment in schools, to facilitate their getting secondary education,” said Augusto Lopez-Claros, Director of the World Bank’s Global Indicators Group, which produces the report.

“Such examples point to a large unfinished agenda of reforms that will benefit not only women, but their families and communities as well,” added Lopez-Claros.

Indeed, 90 percent of economies monitored have at least one law that is discriminatory towards women. The most pervasive gender disparities involve labor regulations, which are different for men and women in all of the economies monitored by the report. Some of these differences facilitate women’s workforce participation, but many prevent it. The country with the most job-related barriers is Russia, where a total of 456 jobs are out of bounds for women.

Women in the Middle East and North Africa face the most wide-ranging constraints that span all of the indicators covered by the report. Laws that prohibit married women from becoming head of household, applying for a passport or getting a job without permission from their husbands cut off entrepreneurship and formal employment. The region is home to 11 of the world’s most restrictive economies, namely Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Syria, Qatar, and Kuwait. Along with Afghanistan, Sudan, Mauritania and Brunei, these are the 15 most restrictive economies in terms of women’s ability to work or establish a business, as measured by the report.

Barriers to women’s economic advancement are also rife in South Asia, which lags behind other regions in undertaking reforms to promote greater gender equality. In the past two years, only 3 reforms have been enacted in two of the region’s economies.

Sub-Saharan Africa saw a robust pace of reform efforts, with 18 reforms enacted in the past two years. The region hosts almost a third of the world’s 30 most restrictive economies, but also two of the world’s 18 economies with no gender barriers.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, reform activity continued and almost all of the region’s economies now have laws providing women protection against domestic violence, but implementation remains a challenge. And many restrictions on employment opportunities continue.

Europe and Central Asia stands out as one of the most advanced regions in terms of property rights, access to credit as well as maternity and paternity leave. However, labor laws continue to keep women out of many jobs unnecessarily.

In the East Asia and Pacific region, substantial gains have been made towards women’s economic inclusion, including through labor legislation. Economies in the region also show innovative access to credit and tax policies to support women’s economic opportunities.

“While laws cannot guarantee equal treatment for women, they are the first step towards creating an even playing field in which women have the opportunity to thrive,” said Sarah Iqbal, lead author of the report.

The full report and accompanying datasets are available at

About Women, Business and the Law:

Women, Business and the Law measures how laws, regulations and institutions differentiate between women and men in ways that may affect women’s incentives or capacity to work or to set up and operate a business. It analyzes legal differences on the basis of gender in 173 economies, covering seven areas: accessing institutions, using property, getting a job, providing incentives to work, building credit, going to court and protecting women from violence. The report is published every two years.

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