Women have come a long way but still have far to go, says report

This story originally appeared on The Guardian here

Saudi Arabia tops the list of countries for laws that limit women’s economic potential while South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa have made the least progress over the past 50 years in improving women’s economic opportunities, a report says.

The World Bank report, entitled Women, Business and the Law, covers 143 countries and was based on data from April 2011 to April 2013 on an examination of laws and interviews with experts. It also looked at how conditions have changed over the past 50 years on two indicators – women’s access to institutions and use of property in 100 countries.

In the last half century, women’s rights worldwide have improved significantly and yet in almost 90% of the countries surveyed, at least one law remains on the books to bar women from certain jobs, opening a bank account, accessing capital or making independent decisions.Twenty-eight countries make 10 or more legal distinctions between the rights of men and women. Half of these countries are in the Middle East and North Africa, followed by 11 in sub-Saharan Africa, it said.

The report shows that when there is a gender gap in legal rights, fewer women own their businesses and income inequality is greatest, a finding that offers insight on the impact that reducing barriers to women’s economic opportunities could have on reducing world poverty.

“When women and men participate in economic life on an equal footing, they can contribute their energies to building a more cohesive society and more resilient economy,” said the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim.

Kim has set as a World Bank priority ending extreme poverty by 2030. Empowering women is viewed by development experts as crucial to achieving that goal, since women have the primary responsibility for the family.

Most countries have started to remove legal obstacles to women’s economic participation, but the progress has been uneven. In Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, legal restrictions have been cut in half since 1960, said Augusto Lopez-Claros, director of global indicators at the World Bank.

But the Middle East region has shown the least progress. Yemen and Egypt have removed from their constitutions bans on gender discrimination. Iran has allowed husbands to prevent their wives from working, placed restrictions on women’s mobility and limited their work in the judicial sector, the report said.

Sarah Iqbal, programme officer at the World Bank and lead author of the report, said the persistence of legal restrictions remained one of the most discouraging aspects of the report. “We have come a long way but still have a great way to go,” she said.

About 25% of countries surveyed have no laws addressing domestic violence and the Middle East and North Africa region has the least protections, the report found.

Algeria and Morocco are the only countries in the region that have laws addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, the report found.

Forty-four countries had improved economic opportunities for women. Ivory Coast and Mali, for instance, no longer allow husbands to forbid their wives from working, the Philippines has removed restrictions on night work for women and Slovakia has increased the wages paid to women during maternity leave.