Women and the Law: Getting to Equal

April 14, 2014

The laws and legal framework of a country set the conditions for female participation in a range of spheres. They reflect social norms, and legal reform can drive changes in these. Most countries still have gender-based legal differences on the books, constraining women’s ability to work, access assets or financial services, seek health care, or make independent decisions in important areas of their lives. Equality before the law is not only a human rights issue but also an economic issue. Over the last year, the World Bank Group has scaled up projects and research aimed at leveling the legal playing field.


Discriminatory laws are a key obstacle holding back women’s economic participation, hindering development and keeping millions of people in poverty. Such laws fall across multiple domains. According to the IFC’s most recent Women, Business and the Law 2014 (WBL), 128 of 143 economies for which data were available had at least one legal difference on the books in how men and women were treated in 2013. Women are disadvantaged by five or more legal differentiations in 54 economies and, in half of those, there are 10 or more legal differences.

This latest WBL adds domestic violence and sexual harassment legislation to its body of knowledge. Its examination of 100 economies tracked by the 50 Years of Women’s Legal Rights database finds that 76 countries have laws explicitly addressing domestic violence, 32 have specific provisions on sexual harassment in schools, and just eight have legislation on sexual harassment in public spaces. Moreover, only 39 countries have laws criminalizing marital rape.

But the report also finds the pace of reform has escalated. Since 2011, 44 economies have instituted 40 legal changes that make it easier for women to pursue entrepreneurship and employment—with the greatest momentum coming from Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. To fully level the playing field, however, much work still lies ahead.

Meaningful reforms must be effectively implemented and seen to be enforced—awareness and trust in judicial recourse are essential, although developing countries often face constraints on capacity. In Brazil, legal services cannot cater to the volume of violence against women despite the well-intentioned 2006 Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence.

On the demand side, women are more likely to lack financial resources to pay for legal assistance and court fees. Poor women not only start out with less; they are also less able legally to protect whatever assets they may possess or acquire.


Initiatives that empower women legally can redress unequal power relationships and unleash women’s economic potential—advancing the World Bank Group’s twin goals of ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity. Legal reform can also drive change in gender-biased social norms. To level the playing field, the World Bank Group must identify discriminatory laws, support effective legal rollout, and assist those with little to no means to finance legal proceedings.

The Bank’s recent work has successfully highlighted the economic benefits of reforming biased laws through workshops and advocacy in Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, Tunisia, and Kenya. Extending land rights to women is another important focus. Land rights are of critical importance to women, providing security and capital that can boost autonomy, opportunities, and well-being. Land rights provide women with the grounds on which to grow and prosper.

The Bank is also adopting various approaches to increasing the legal service capacity in developing economies. An innovative solution in Rio de Janeiro uses the urban metro system to offer legal support centers to women. Elsewhere, Bank-funded initiatives are providing free counsel and representation in court to women through more traditional regional legal aid centers.

Gender mainstreaming is delivering positive legal results using a grassroots approach. Gender-informed projects that increase female participation and engagement are allowing women to identify initiatives of importance to them. With World Bank support, these have been brought to the attention of regional and national authorities.

The World Bank Group will also continue building the relevant evidence base across countries and sectors.


Recent results illustrate various approaches the Bank is taking to address legal equality and protection for women:

Legal reform:

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Bank’s Financial and Private Sector Development (FPD) is supporting a new Family Code to improve the business climate for women. Over the last year, FPD has supported workshops—held by the Ministry of Women—that highlighted the economic benefits of Family Code reform to: Parliamentary Deputies, Senators, the private sector, and civil society. Under the current code, married women need a husband’s permission to sign a contract, open a bank account, take out a loan, register a business, register land, or go to court. Under the proposed code, such permissions will no longer be necessary. The revised Family Code also raises the minimum age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18. The new code has been approved by the government's Commission on Legal Reform, and submitted to the Senate where a vote is expected in 2014. The project was funded by DFID[1]. Project approved 2008 and remains active in 2014.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the IFC’s Investment Climate Advisory Services and Women, Business and the Law are supporting reform of discriminatory Family Code provisions. Early results include a new law for married couples, passed in January 2013: Both spouses may now legally choose where to live and whether and where to work outside the home and both husbands and wives can now legally be designated “head of household.”

Legal assistance:

In June 2012, the World Bank[2] launched the Justice Center for Legal Aid (JCLA) in Jordan and opened six Legal Aid Centers (LAC) that provide free legal counseling and representation to those who lack financial means. In Jordan, court fees and legal costs are comparatively high, which place the poor and particularly women—who have less control over economic assets—at a particular disadvantage. JCLA is now the largest single provider of legal aid services in Jordan, and 70% of its beneficiaries are women[3]. Its services are delivering essential legal support to women who face daily emotional and physical violence and intimidation that isolates them from their personal and economic assets. To date JCLA has provided counseling to 3,400 men and women and represented more than 1,480 in court. A link to compelling video testimonials is at the bottom of this report. JCLA is also raising public awareness about free legal aid. It has held 275 information sessions reaching more than 6,800 beneficiaries. The project remains active in 2014.

In 2010, the World Bank[4] was brought in to monitor and supervise a project assisting survivors of sexual violence in the war-torn province of South Kivu, eastern Congo, a region that has seen some of the cruelest acts of sexual violence in recent history.[5] The project, which provided medical and therapeutic care to 3,951 survivors, also included community reintegration initiatives and improved recourse to justice. Due to the project’s advocacy efforts, medical certificate survivors can seek justice in court, for free, a measure that is important both to survivors and to closing the cycle of impunity. The project is now closed.

The World Bank’s US$500 million Development Policy Loan to Brazil will connect and update Rio de Janeiro’s scattered urban transport system. The project design takes a gender-informed approach to extending the reach of legal assistance to women affected by gender-based violence. The urban network—that extends from the center of the city to hillside shantytowns—will have legal centers offering counseling at five of the major stations. A further 107 electronic information terminals will be installed across the system. The “Via Lila” initiative will support the 300,000 female passengers who use the network daily. Project approved 2009 and still active in 2014.

Land titling:

In 2007, Rwanda asked the World Bank to conduct an impact evaluation of a pilot land registration initiative.  The evaluation found that the program led to a 17 percentage point increase in documented land rights for married women. Greater land security was also linked to a significantly higher increase in soil conservation and investment. Men’s investment increased by 10% and women’s by 19%, with improved outlook for agricultural yields and food security. The jump in female investment suggests that without secure land titles, women consider investing in land too risky. Unmarried women’s documented land holding increased by just 8 percentage points. The pilot was rolled out nationwide in 2011, including a provision that protected the rights of unmarried women to property.[6] Ghana is going through the same land titling process and the World Bank was able to connect teams from Accra with those in Kigali for a fruitful discussion of the benefits of increasing female land titling as well as implementation considerations. There is a high demand for quick, affordable, and scalable models to address land tenure in Africa. The cases of Rwanda and Ghana provide a good example of successful South-South learning with a strong gender-informed perspective.

World Bank Development Research[7] designed the evaluation framework for an initiative extending Certificates of Right of Occupancy (CROs) to slum-dwellers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. As part of efforts across many African nations to increase the level of women documented on land titles, the project distributed “pink” conditional vouchers that could be redeemed only if a female was listed as co-owner on the certificate. The project also incorporated joint-titling awareness activities that raised the number of households indicating that they would co-title from 24% to 89%.  Final results, reported in 2013, showed households that received a conditional voucher were 29-30 percentage points more likely to co-title than those who received no voucher. This represented a significant increase on the 5% listed on Residential Licenses (RLs), more typically used prior to the CRO pilot. The research findings suggest that programs that creatively address female land tenure can significantly improve women’s rights and economic assets.[8] 

Grassroots operations to improve women’s legal rights:

World Bank advice and assistance on Bolivia’s Second Participatory Rural Investment (PDCR), established a target that at least 30% of beneficiaries of the services offered, be women. Gender specialists encouraged female participation and women began to identify the initiatives of greatest importance to them.  Female participants overwhelming called for the project to address and tackle the physical and emotional abuse confronted by women daily within households, communities, and public institutions. Gender-based violence is now being addressed at local and regional levels and proposals are under review by the Tribunal of Justice. The IDA-funded project was approved in 2007 and closed in 2013.

Similarly a Gender Pilot Plan (GPP) in Peru, that used a participatory methodology designed and supported by the World Bank’s Gender Action Plan (GAP), succeeded in highlighting the benefits of greater female participation in Water Users’ Organizations (WUOs). As a result, in 2011 WUO authorities set targets for women’s engagement and the  National National Water Authority passing Reglamento 0266-2012 ANA-Resolucion Jefatural, which makes women’s participation in WUOs mandatory. This constitutes a landmark for women to claim their right to participate in the decision-making process and served to overthrow the election of an all-male board in Cajamarca in 2012.


The World Bank Group promotes gender equality through knowledge, financing, and partnerships. IDA, the World Bank Group’s fund for the poorest, has made gender a special theme. The share of World Bank projects that integrate gender into their underlying analysis, program content, and results frameworks is now almost 60%—up from less than 20% just three years ago. The total amount of gender-informed lending in FY13 was nearly US$31 billion. The total share of gender-informed lending in IDA countries was some US$16 billion. These operations and funds have directly and indirectly supported work that addresses gender equality, including equitable legislation and delivery of justice.


The World Bank’s work depends on effective partnerships with governments, civil society organizations, NGOs, donors, and others. Examples of these partnerships include: Development research on land titling with Oxford University (United Kingdom); The Justice Center for Legal Aid has partnered with Jordan University and Yarmouk University (Jordan); DRC’s Family Code reform in partnership with DFID and the Ministry of Women; the urban transport initiative in Rio de Janeiro partners with Supervia (Brazil); and the PDCR project in Bolivia works with the Ministry of Autonomies and the National Fund for Productive and Social Investment (FSI) .


The World Bank Group is uniquely positioned to address legal inequality around the globe through its networks, convening power, and in-depth knowledge of legal disparities and their economic impact. Women, Business and the Law regularly evaluates economies while the 50 Years of Women’s Legal Rights database tracks the progress of 100 countries over the past half-century. To this knowledge it adds the economic data housed in the ADePT Gender database that provides quick and standardized analytical reports including cross-country labor force statistics. The EnGENDER IMPACT database provides evidence of initiatives (by the Bank and its partners) that have successfully increased women’s rights.

These knowledge resources continue to provide the World Bank empirically-based strategic direction. Moving ahead the organization needs to:

  • Expand its work with lawmakers using empirical evidence to advocate for equal access to economic assets such as property, credit, and work;
  • Share knowledge and facilitate South-South learning on measures that improve women’s legal status—such as land titling initiatives;
  • Find entry points to engage with countries in need of reform, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa region;
  • Galvanize regions where rates of legal reform are on the increase—such as in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin American and the Caribbean;
  • Identify measures to help developing countries build capacity to enforce laws, inspiring citizen confidence;
  • Provide subsidized or free legal counsel and court representation to the most vulnerable;
  • Build on the reach of gender mainstreaming and gender-informed projects to identify rights inequalities and bring these to the table at regional and national levels; and
  • Continue to build the World Bank’s body of legal and economic data.


A Jordanian woman—who received free legal assistance through the World Bank’s Justice Center for Legal Aid compares the organization to as a protective family:

“The Justice Center for Legislative Aid is the brother, the uncle and the father that stood beside me in my time of need. I will never forget what they did to help me. God willing, my son Ayham will grow up to become a lawyer and join the Justice Center for Legal Aid and give back.”

[1] Women, Business and the Law, 2014

[2] Externally Financed Output: 578

[3] Financed by Japan Social Development Fund

[4] An analysis of caseloads finds that poor women are 18 times more likely than men to qualify for free legal representation based on their financial status. They are also four times more likely to be involved in disputes over personal status: Marriage, divorce, alimony, child custody and support, inheritance and access to dowries.

[5] World Bank’s Learning on Gender and Conflict in Africa Program (LOGiCA)

[6] The project was funded by the State and Peace Building Fund (SPF) and implemented by INGO International Rescue Committee (IRC).

[7] P-Code for Impact Assessment analysis work as opposed to Project ID.

[8] Research partnership with Oxford University