Women worldwide face legal barriers to employment, says 2016 World Bank report

By Svetlana Shkolnikova, Staff Writer

Ninety percent of the world's economies have at least one law impeding women's economic opportunities and though that number is not likely to change soon, the future is looking slightly brighter for women in some of the most restrictive developing economies, according to the World Bank's 2016 Women, Business and Law report.

The biennial report, which measures legal restrictions on women's entrepreneurship and employment, examined 173 economies (including 30 that were previously uncovered) and found women routinely facing obstacles, namely violence and a lack of jobs, in countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia with great gender disparities.

About 90 percent of economies monitored by the study have at least one law, usually a labor regulation, impeding women's economic advancement. Only 18 have no legal restrictions: Armenia, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Kosovo, Malta, Mexico, Namibia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Puerto Rico, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain and Taiwan.

Russia has the most job-related barriers, with 456 jobs off-limits to women, from woodworking to working as a freight train conductor. Forty-one economies bar women from working in certain factory jobs; 29 ban them from working at night.

In the Middle East and North Africa, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Syria, Qatar, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Sudan, Mauritania and Brunei, women live under immense oppression from laws that prohibit them from heading households, obtaining passports and getting jobs without permission from their husbands, cutting them off from both entrepreneurship and formal employment. 

"Women represent over half the world’s population. We can’t afford to leave their potential untapped," said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim in a statement. "When women can work, manage incomes and run businesses, the benefits extend far beyond the individual level – to children, communities and entire economies."

Several regions, most of them developing, made significant strides in the past two years to level the playing field, with Sub-Saharan Africa enacting 18 reforms, Latin America and the Caribbean enacting 16, the Middle East and North African enacting 12 and East Asia and the Pacific pushing through 11.

While laws do not guarantee equal treatment for women, the absence of protection against domestic violence, for instance, is likely to cut down women's lifespans while the presence of generous childcare laws allows for entry (and longevity) in the workforce, said researchers.

The full report is available here.

Photo: Afghan women work at a textile factory in Kabul. Credit: U.S. Air Force