Thursday, October 2, 2014

Making the Law Work for Working Women

When Sarah Iqbal, currently the Program Manager for Women, Business and the Law at the World Bank, first started working on development issues there in 2008, she says she often found herself explaining why the obstacles women faced when trying to start businesses and get jobs mattered on a global scale. Now, she says, there aren’t enough data to meet the demand for such information.

In this week’s WAPPP Seminar, “Women, Business and the Law: Removing Restrictions to Enhance Gender Equality,” Iqbal discussed the findings of the Women, Business and Law 2014 Report. The report scrutinizes the laws and regulations across the globe that affect men and women differently so as to limit women’s opportunities and incentives to work.

In a survey of 143 economies, 90% were found to have at least one legal difference restricting women’s economic opportunities. The restrictions came in a variety of forms, from property rights restrictions to long lists of jobs that women were prohibited from doing. 15 of these countries had laws allowing husbands to object to – and therefore restrict – their wives’ employment.

The study looked at seven indicators of gender economic equality to make these determinations: (1) ability to access institutions, (2) property use, (3) whether there were restrictions on type of employment, (4) whether incentives to work are provided, (5) ability to build credit, (6) court accessibility, and (7) the degree to which women are protected from violence.

The report found that there were three main obstacles for women’s advancement in business. The first is women’s lack of autonomy to interact with government institutions or conduct official transactions. Iqbal illustrated this by discussing “head of household” rights and responsibilities, such as paying taxes or sending children to school, which are usually delegated to men.

Second, Iqdal explained that marriage is often the trigger for such loss of rights. While single women have as many rights as single men in almost every country studied, women give up some of their autonomy upon marriage in many countries around the world. Lastly, limited property rights are a major factor contributing to women’s restricted economic opportunities, since property can be used as collateral for loans to start small businesses, for example.

Fortunately, there is hope that progress is being made on this issue. Within five years of the ratification of CEDAW, rates of reform in the countries studied had doubled. The report also found that having women legislators increased the likelihood of reform in that country. Over the two year period examined, Women, Business and the Law recorded 59 legal changes in 44 economies. Of these changes, 48 increased gender parity, 11 were neutral to gender parity. None reduced gender parity.

In addition to collecting this data, Women, Business and the Law are working with countries to make their laws less restrictive for women's economic opportunities. Iqbal closed by arguing that “what gets measured gets done,” and that despite the clear challenges ahead, a good first step is measuring the problem in order to tackle it.

Photo source: The World Bank

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