Gender equality: Big gains under law but not enough

Ten years ago, no country in the world gave women and men equal legal rights.

Today (or since June 2017) six out of 187 nations have enshrined gender equality in their laws, specifically those affecting employment and entrepreneurship, according to a decade-long study made public by the World Bank, ahead of the observance of International Women’s Day yesterday.

These are Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden. But even as these countries have instituted the needed legal reforms, it does not automatically mean that, at ground level, there’s 100 percent gender equality, the study emphasizes.

For instance, in Sweden – where women now represent 46 percent of the members of Parliament and hold 50 percent of the Cabinet seats – women still earn 5 percent less than their male peers. Unequal pay has been a major stumbling block, the study notes, calculating that if women earned as much as men, the global economy could be enriched by about $160 trillion.

The study, titled “Women, Business and the Law 2019: a Decade of Reform,” examined 10 years of data using an index “structured around the economic decisions women made as they went through their working lives.” It measured gender discrimination and tracked legal hindrances to women in either employment or entrepreneurship.

The data show “great progress” toward legal gender equality over the past 10 years:

• In 131 countries 274 reforms to laws and regulations have been adopted to reduce gender discrimination; 35 nations implemented laws on “workplace sexual environment,” protecting nearly two billion more women than a decade ago.

• 39 countries scored 90 or above (the six leading nations each got the full score of 100); 26 of the 39 are high-income, 8 are in Europe and Central Asia, 2 (Paraguay and Peru) in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one (Taiwan) in East Asia-Pacific.

• Globally, the 187 nations’ average score on gender equality rose from 70 to 74.71 over 10 years, indicating that a typical economy/government now gives women three-fourths (3/4) of the rights of men in the areas of activities measured through the index.

• Over the past two years, 65 countries have made 87 legal reforms in favor of women. The issue, however, is when and how these reforms will be implemented. Dozens of studies do show however that in cases where these reforms are really carried out, they have significantly enhanced women’s earning power and agency.

• Among the regional groupings, South Asia (8 countries) has registered the biggest improvement, from a score of 50 to 58.36; East Asia and the Pacific (where the Philippines belongs), has moved up from 64.80 to 70.73, while Sub-Sahara Africa’s (28 nations) score has risen from 64.04 to 69.63. The Middle East and North Africa (22 nations) has made the least progress, its score rising only by 2.86 from 44.49 to 47.37.

On the negative side, the data show the following conditions:

• Only 76 countries mandate equal pay for work of equal value.

• In 104 countries, women are barred from working at night, or taking jobs in manufacturing, construction, energy, and agriculture; this has adversely affected more than 2.7 billion women.

• 45 countries do not have laws on domestic violence.

• 59 nations have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace. The study notes that women are more likely to own their own businesses in countries where there is legal protection against harassment and abuse.

• 21 countries (many in Sub-Sahara Africa, the Middle East and North Africa) score zero on protecting women from violence.

• 37 countries have no laws protecting working women from dismissal once they get pregnant.

Sarah Iqbal, World Bank program manager of the women, business and law project, observed:

“Unfortunately, laws are a straight line for men and a maze for many women around the world, and that needs to be changed.” “There is no reason,” she added, “to keep women out of certain jobs or prevent them from owning a business. Our message is simple: no women, no growth.”

World Bank senior director for development economics Shanta Devarajan predicted that with developments such as the #MeToo Movement building momentum in the developing world, there would be more progress in laws protecting women from sexual harassment.

All in all, Devarajan pointed out, giving women equal opportunity “is a moral and economic imperative and rescinding discriminatory laws is an important first step.”

It must be noted that the interim president of the World Bank, who wrote the foreword to the study, is a woman: Kristalina Georgieva (she took over after Jim Yong Kim resigned last year). Another woman, Christine Lagarde, heads the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thus two women now steer the tandem multilateral institutions, the IMF-WB, that have greatly influenced – both positively and negatively — the monetary/financial and development policies of nations since the end of World War II.

“Gender equality is a critical component of economic growth,” Georgieva states in the study’s foreword. “Women are half of the world’s population and we have our role to play in creating a more prosperous world. But we won’t succeed in playing it if the laws are holding us back.”

“We know that achieving gender equality requires more than just changes to laws,” she points out. “The laws need to be meaningfully implemented – and this requires sustained political will, leadership from women and men across societies, and changes to ingrained cultural norms and attitudes.”

She appeals to governments to guarantee the free and equal participation of women in economic and social development. “After all,” she concludes, “the world is better off when it draws upon the talents of all the people.”

However, the WB executive board has issued a caveat. Describing the study as a “product of the (WB) staff with external contributions,” the governing body states that the “findings, interpretations, and conclusions do not necessarily reflect the views of the WB, its board of executive directors, or the governments they represent.” But it allows its reproduction with proper attribution, in whole or in part, for noncommercial purposes because the WB “encourages dissemination of its knowledge.”

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Published in Philippine Star
March 9, 2019

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