Women’s rights still lagging around the worldBy Ramy Srour | Last updated: Oct 11, 2013 - 12:48:33 PM
The Washington-based institution, the world’s largest development funder, released a major report Sept. 24 tracking gender equality developments in 143 countries, focusing particularly on the last two years but contextualizing those changes since the 1960s.
It finds that although many countries have moved toward greater gender parity, there are still major areas—particularly in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa—where substantial legal barriers to equality remain in place.
Civil society groups generally agree with the bank’s long-term analysis, but emphasize that the picture on the ground remains problematic. Even when policies have changed, they say, poor implementation remains an outstanding issue.
“While it is true that over the last 50 years we have seen a huge uplift in women’s rights laws on violence, divorce and property rights, the greatest challenge is that the majority of these laws aren’t actually being enforced,” Ritu Sharma, president of Women Thrive Worldwide, a non-profit organization here, told IPS.
“The real goal is to create infrastructure that will enable local governments to actually prosecute sex offenders, get women to keep their ownership rights, and enable them to initiate divorce proceedings. Right now, very little is being done to ensure that these new laws are respected.”
Nearly 90 percent of the 143 countries were found to have at least one legal restriction on women’s economic opportunities, according to the report. Bank researchers focused on regulations affecting women’s property rights, legal decision-making procedures, legal protections addressing violence against women, and legal barriers on women’s economic empowerment.
Most restrictions impact women’s ability to conduct basic activities, ranging from applying for a passport to registering a business, from opening a bank account to applying for a job to their ability to hold property. In 15 countries, husbands are still legally allowed to prevent their spouses from working or accepting a job.
The most significant obstacles in this regard affect some of the most basic aspects of women’s everyday lives. The length of paid maternity leave, for instance, as well as laws penalizing employers from firing pregnant women are some of the most common.
Nonetheless, “Progress on gender equality under the law is accelerating,” Augusto Lopez-Claros, the director of global indicators and analysis at the World Bank Group, said.
He added that some of the restrictions that have been removed were also some of the oldest still alive. For instance, in Latin America and the Caribbean women now have the ability to represent the family and manage marital assets, something only their husbands were previously allowed to do.
Funding and technical expertise from multilateral institutions has had an increasingly important role in nurturing gender equality around the world. But many advocates, such as Ms. Sharma, suggest that most multilaterals came late to this work, with the most important successes of the past half-century being carried out by local grassroots organizations.
“What seems to be happening today is that local groups realize that they have to do most of the implementation on their own, so they are coming up with new ways to do that,” she notes, suggesting that many are now focusing on ways to change the social norms that lead to gender inequality.
“One way to do that is by reaching out to local religious institutions and trying to achieve gender equality by educating women through their faith and their cultural norms,” she said.