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International Women’s Day, 2024 Why Legal Equality Is Key to Women’s Economic Rights and Well-Being

Credit: Equality Now, Tara Carey

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark International Women’s Day, March 8.

NEW YORK, Mar 7 2024 (IPS) – Women’s economic opportunities, rights, and well-being are being denied worldwide by sex-discriminatory laws and policies that curtail women’s access to employment, equal pay, property ownership, and inheritance.

Governments need to take urgent action to repeal or amend sex-discriminatory legislation that is hampering not only the socio-economic progress of women and their families but also of their countries.

The World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law 2024 report, released this week, finds that none of the 190 countries surveyed has achieved legal equality for women, not even in the wealthiest economies. Women have only 64% of the legal rights that men enjoy, and globally, they earn just 77 cents of each dollar a man earns.

Closing the gap could raise global gross domestic product (GDP) by over 20%, the report says. But at the current pace of reform, the UN estimates it will take until 2310 to remove discriminatory laws against women and close the gender gaps in legal protection.

Sex Discrimination in Economic Status Laws

The 68th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) provides an important opportunity to hold governments to account for their effectiveness in protecting and advancing women’s rights, including economic rights.

CSW is held annually in March at the UN in New York, and the theme for 2024 focuses on accelerating the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls through addressing poverty.

To shed further light on discriminatory laws that impinge on women’s economic choices and financial independence, a policy brief by Equality Now, Words & Deeds: Sex Discrimination in Economic Status Laws – 2024 Update, highlights examples of economic status laws that governments promptly need to reform or remove. These laws are found around the world – including in countries considered to be progressive. A few of the many examples are:

  • In Brazil, women are required by law to retire earlier than men.
  • In Cameroon, a husband can legally administer and dispose of his wife’s property.
  • In Chile, there is a legal presumption that a husband will have full control of all marital property, as well as any property owned by their wives.
  • In China, women are legally prohibited from engaging in certain trades, including any which the State specifies female workers “should avoid.”
  • In Ireland, fathers can only access 2 weeks of paternity leave, considerably less than mothers. Although an improvement from the law prior to 2016, which stipulated that the mother had to die before a father could obtain benefits, all parents should be treated equally.
  • In Madagascar, women are forbidden by law from undertaking any form of night work, except in family establishments.
  • In Sri Lanka, a married woman is restricted from disposing of and dealing with property, such as land, without the written consent of her husband.
  • In Tunisia, laws exist that limit women’s inheritance rights and stipulate sons inherit twice as much as daughters.

Sex-discriminatory laws disadvantage women in many ways

By restricting women’s full economic and social participation, sex-discriminatory laws trap many in poverty and dependence, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment by relatives, partners, employers, and the wider society.

Discriminatory family laws can limit women’s ability to consent to marriage and divorce, retain custody of their children following divorce, and access their fair share of wealth in matrimony and inheritance. For example, 43 countries do not grant widows the same inheritance rights as widowers, and 41 prevent daughters from inheriting the same proportion of assets as sons.

Equitable ownership promotes wealth creation and provides economic stability, but 77 countries have at least one constraint on women’s property rights.

In some countries, the law stipulates women must “obey” their husbands and/or male guardians. This puts them at greater risk of domestic abuse, including marital rape, and makes it harder to access justice when their human rights are violated.

A lack of constitutional equality also harms women. In the United States, the US Constitution does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against women. Supporters are calling for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to be incorporated, as this would effectively categorize sex as a “protected class” alongside race, religion, and national origin, giving women greater economic rights.

Impacting women’s career and earning potential

Occupational freedom is associated with better job opportunities, earning potential, and professional advancement. Yet 59 countries have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs, and 19 countries allow husbands to legally prevent their wives from working.

Stereotyped traditional gender roles can also leave women shouldering the burden of unpaid domestic labor. Childcare falls almost exclusively on mothers, with women performing 2.8x more unpaid care and domestic work than men. And only 55 countries have paid parental leave laws available to either parent.

Care responsibilities can prevent women from engaging in paid work, limit their career progression, and reduce their income. Additionally, it can make it harder for women to enter or re-enter the labor force, start or run a business, or access retirement funds.

All this contributes to women being overrepresented in insecure, low-paid, and unregulated jobs. It also fuels the gender pay gap, with women often earning less than men for equivalent work. Deplorably, 92 countries fail to guarantee equal pay for equal work. This inequity is compounded when women are denied equal access to pensions on the same basis as men.

Meanwhile, legal systems and social norms frequently undervalue non-financial contributions to family welfare. This is particularly common when marital assets are divided upon divorce oror death, as family laws in many countries only take account of monetary contributions by each spouse.

These obstacles are exacerbated when women’s reproductive rights are curtailed through measures such as abortion bans. Countries like France, which just this week enshrined guaranteed access to abortion in its Constitution, will be better able to leverage women’s economic participation by ensuring their right to bodily autonomy.

Investing in women’s rights benefits everyone

Economic and gender inequalities are intimately linked, and it’s not an exaggeration to say inequality kills. The relationship between gender inequality in the law and peace and economic prosperity is well documented.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused skyrocketing rates of unemployment and damaged the global economy. Although the shock reverberated across industries and communities, women bore the brunt. Preventing future global crises and recessions requires prioritizing changes now to achieve legal equality for women.

Investing in this isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s smart economically. Full legal equality would maximize economic participation by women, adding up to $28 trillion of wealth into the worldwide economy every year, McKinsey estimates.

Holding countries to account for advancing women’s rights

The CSW is a space for governments, civil society, UN bodies, and other stakeholders to discuss challenges and formulate strategies and policies that set best practice global standards on gender equality.

Part of this entails reviewing the implementation of commitments made by countries in various international agreements, such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which was agreed by 189 UN member states in 1995. The Platform for Action clearly outlines what governments must do to guarantee equality and non-discrimination under the law and promote women’s economic rights.

As governments come together once again at CSW, it’s time to tell them: unlock women’s potential by investing in legal equality. Governments need to address the whole ecosystem of laws and policies to ensure women are not concentrated in the lowest-paid or unregulated jobs and aren’t effectively forced to leave the workforce to take up (unpaid) care responsibilities. And once progressive laws – such as equal pay for equal work – are adopted, governments must robustly implement them.

Ending legal discrimination will enable women to flourish and communities to thrive, boosting global productivity and stimulating economic prosperity across all nations, and for the benefit of all.

Antonia Kirkland is Global Lead, Legal Equality & Access to Justice at Equality Now; Bryna K. Subherwal is Global Head of Advocacy Communications at Equality Now.

Equality Now is a feminist organization using the law to protect and promote the human rights of all women and girls. Since 1992, it’s international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters have held governments responsible for achieving legal equality and ending sexual exploitation, sexual violence, and harmful practices.

IPS UN Bureau

Antonia Kirkland and Bryna K. Subherwal
Antonia Kirkland and Bryna K. Subherwal
  Antonia Kirkland is Global Lead, Legal Equality & Access to Justice at Equality Now Bryna K. Subherwal is Global Head of Advocacy Communications at Equality Now.
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