The World Bank says 14 countries have achieved legal gender parity. But is this the same as true equality?

The World Bank says 14 countries have achieved legal gender parity. But is this the same as true equality?

New research by the World Bank has found that only 14 countries give women full legal protections. But does this translate to real equality between men and women? We take a look at what the figures mean for women living in different parts of the world. 

Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Sweden as well as Germany and the Netherlands are the nations offering full equal rights for men and women according to the World Bank report, at least from a legal perspective.

The Women, Business and the Law 2023 report measured laws that affect women’s economic opportunity in 190 countries, assessing eight separate indicators: mobility, workplace, pay, marriage, parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets, and pension. 

The data was compiled through surveys with more than 2,000 experts in legislation working locally in family, labour, and violence against women. The research also collected texts related to relevant laws and compared these to the survey responses for accuracy. 

Countries are ranked on a scale where 100 means full equal rights. Of the 190 nations assessed, 99 scored 80 or above, while some of the lowest-ranked countries have scores under 30.

Does a wealthy nation mean true equality? 

The report’s indicators include freedom of movement, the ability to own property, and legal constraints relating to marriage and starting businesses, with the premise that a legal environment in which women have the same rights and opportunities as men leads to economic prosperity for everyone. 

For example, Germany and the Netherlands are the latest countries to achieve a score of 100, because in 2022 they amended parental leave entitlements to be equal for men and women. 

Most of the report’s top scoring countries are higher-income economies, however if we look in detail at G20 member countries (the 20 countries that represent 85% of global GDP and over 75% of the world’s trade), we can see there is no guarantee that legislation provides full equality. 

India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico are part of the G20, however all four countries are known to have poor women’s rights records and frequently made headlines in the last year for having high rates of femicides and attacks on women’s rights defenders, among other problems. 

According to the report, the countries with a score of 100 have achieved gender parity in terms of legislation across all the areas measured. However in practice, this does not seem to be the case. 

In France – one of the 14 countries to achieve a score of 100 – an advisory body to the government recently had to produce an emergency plan to tackle “alarming levels” of sexism, including rising levels of harassment aimed at women such as verbal abuse on social media and pornographic violence. Of the people surveyed by France’s High Council for Equality, 80% said that existing laws that are meant to address domestic violence are poorly enforced and insufficient. 

The UK had a score of 97.5, missing out on the top mark only because it ranked lower for laws affecting women in the workplace after having children. However it is currently engulfed in an epidemic of violence against women, with conviction rates for reported rape at an all-time low of 1%. Meanwhile the capital city’s police force are mired in scandal since two high profile cases came to light where officers used their powers to abuse women (one of which was the murder of Sarah Everard). The new commissioner has admitted that it is expected that two to three criminal cases against officers will go to court each week for serious offences including violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual offences.

In Australia, which scored 100 across all metrics except pensions, 1 in 5 women will experience violence in an intimate relationship, while 1 in 5 have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. This figure is five times higher among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Which regions had the lowest score?

There are few surprises among the 10 lowest scoring regions in the report. As we see time and again, violent conflict and political instability are major contributors to human rights aggressions, with women and girls often being impacted the most

gender equality

At the very bottom of the rankings are Sudan, Yemen and West Bank and Gaza (i.e. the Palestinian territories), all of which are experiencing human rights violations as a result of war. 

Afghanistan, where the Taliban regained power in 2021, and Iran, where nationwide protests ongoing since September 2022 have highlighted the lack of rights available to women, are also among the bottom 10. 

Which countries passed gender-related reforms in 2022? 

The report notes that in 2022, progress towards equal treatment for women fell to its weakest pace in 20 years, with only 18 regions recording gender-related legal reforms last year. These included: 

  • Côte d’Ivoire enacted reforms prohibiting discrimination in access to credit based on gender. 
  • Bahrain equalised the ages at which women and men can retire with full pension benefits. 
  • Jamaica enacted legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace. 
  • Gabon passed legislation allowing women to apply for a passport in the same way as men.

At its current rate, it would take at least 50 years to approach legal gender equality everywhere. In some regions measured in the report, more than 1,500 reforms would be necessary to reach substantial legal gender equality, but as we can see, even this doesn’t guarantee women’s safety or fully eradicate discrimination based on gender. 

There is no doubt that having a strong legal system in place is vital for societies to provide equal opportunities for women and men in all spheres of life. However metrics based solely on economic factors fail to take into account those that are marginalised or disadvantaged due to historical racism, illness, disability and geography, and therefore live outside of the dominant economic system (which, as this article by academic Simon Mair perfectly explains, exists to facilitate exchanges of money). Until this is addressed so that the root causes of discrimination, domestic violence and other forms of abuse are eliminated, there will never be true gender equality, even in the richest countries. 

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