THE BLOG

Women's Equality Before the Law -- Not Yet, Not Everywhere, But Change Is Here

09/24/2013 11:00 am ET | Updated Nov 23, 2013

Women working at a bank in Vientiane, Lao PDR © Stanislas Fradelizi/World Bank

Even after decades of progress toward the equality of women, almost 90 percent of countries surveyed in a recent study continue to have a law or regulation that prevents women legally from fully using their economic opportunities.

Policymakers who tolerate such outdated legal restraints on women are, in effect, forcing their economies to fight with one hand tied behind their back. In other words, by thwarting one half of the population from fully contributing all their talents, they may undermine economic success for their whole country, not just women.

That is not to say that things haven't changed. If that was the case, I would not be able to manage my own finances. Because in Indonesia, where I am from, the Dutch-imposed Civil Code dating back to the colonial 1870s prevailed until the 1974 Law on Marriage granted married women greater rights, including the ability to open individual bank accounts. And as for my South African female friends, they were deemed legal minors, with their husbands as guardians, until the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act in 1988 accorded them full legal status as individuals. In fact, over the last fifty years, more than half of the restrictions worldwide on women's property rights and their ability to conduct legal transactions were removed.

Especially encouraging are the latest reforms in several West African countries, including Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Togo. Ivorian wives are no longer barred from being legal heads of household; and can claim tax deductions for their children or spouses on the same basis as their husbands.

Momentum for positive change is now evident worldwide: According to the latest "Women, Business and the Law" report, which examines gender imbalances in laws, regulations and institutions of 143 countries, 44 economies made 48 legal changes that expanded women's opportunities. That is over the last year alone. The Philippines and Slovenia lifted restrictions on women working at night. Mexico prohibited the dismissal of women just for being pregnant. Hungary removed women-specific employment restrictions, instead providing job protections for all workers, regardless of their gender. Jamaica enacted a constitutional amendment adding a gender equality clause and a nondiscrimination clause.

Of course, not all is good. In many countries, laws still work to women's disadvantage -- for example, by requiring married women to obtain their husbands' permission to register a business, own property or work. Paternalistic regulations often prohibit women from holding jobs in certain industries: In the Russian Federation, women cannot drive trucks in the agriculture sector; in Belarus, they cannot be carpenters; in Kazakhstan, they cannot be welders. Such restrictions may have arisen from a desire to protect women, but they limit their employment options -- and it's no coincidence that economies with the most restrictions on women's opportunities have lower female participation in the formal labor force.

Legal forms of discrimination against women are difficult to eliminate in many societies -- some countries in the Middle East and North Africa provide evidence of that chronic pattern -- yet the recent breakthroughs in regions like West Africa show that modernization can overcome attitudes that were not only widely accepted, they were also deemed unchangeable.

The data also shows that out of 100 countries surveyed, more than half criminalize sexual harassment. 76 countries have laws prohibiting domestic violence. We know that these laws, where they exist, cannot prevent gender-based violence, but they are a first step to establish equality.

As long as outdated laws still clutter the statute books lawmakers have to live with the fact that by stifling equality they may be choking their economies, too. Because when both women and men contribute to a country's economic life on an equal basis, they help building stronger societies and stronger economies.

Sri Mulyani Indrawati is the Chief Operating Officer and Managing Director of the World Bank.