With Ten Years to the SDG Finish Line, Laws Need to Change for Gender Equality

We’re a third of the way through the lifetime of the Sustainable Development Goals, which were set to transform the world by 2030. When it comes to SDG 5 on gender equality, global progress towards targets remains either unmeasured or too slow. The World Economic Forum suggests that, on current trends, economic equality between men and women is not 10, but 257 years away—55 more years than were predicted based on last year’s trends. Progress has slowed for many reasons, but one major constraint on progress is thousands of laws and regulations worldwide that deny women and girls equal opportunities and protections. Local women’s rights organizations, backed by meaningful financial resources and rigorous evidence, are best placed to lead the fight against legal barriers to gender equality. And it’s time to ensure that these organizations receive the support they need.

The Current Landscape

There are thousands of laws on the books worldwide that limit women and girls’ opportunities and agency. According to the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law database, 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. In 2016 there were 943 legal gender differences involving women’s economic empowerment alone. In 2018, in 18 countries, husbands were still legally allowed to prevent their wives from working. Thirty-seven countries still do not allow women to obtain or renew a passport in the same way as men. In 104 countries, there are laws preventing women from working in specific jobs.

Outside of explicitly gender-discriminatory laws, we must also consider the need for new laws that promote gender equality. Fifty-nine economies have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace. Ninety-one countries mandate paternity leave, but the median length of that leave is five days compared to 98 days for women, and these protections often do not extend to parents working in the informal sector—the majority of workers in low- and middle-income countries.

The Impact of Legal Reform

Legal reform is only one part of a far broader set of changes addressing norms, attitudes, and behaviors required to achieve greater equality. A number of countries with strong de jure commitment to gender equality, including constitutional provisions, still see massive inequality in outcomes.

Nonetheless, legal change, especially when driven by local actors and accompanied by broader civil society engagement to change norms, can foster greater equality. Women, Business and the Law research has demonstrated the real impacts of legal reform on women’s employment outcomes. In countries where women’s property rights are restricted, 14 percent of firms are managed by women compared to 21 percent in countries with equal property rights. Legal gender differences are estimated to dramatically decrease women’s labor force participation, increase gender pay gaps, and undermine GDP growth.

Other research, focusing on Burkina Faso specifically, suggests one law can make a big difference. One law change in Burkina Faso helped prevent 237,591 cases of FGM/C (female genital mutilation/cutting) over 10 years. At the time of Burkina Faso’s legal reform, the country only had a population of 11 million; it is a small country, yet one legal change affected a quarter of a million people. It is not impossible to imagine a single legal change materially affecting millions of women.

Supporting Civil Society

To address legal discrimination based on gender, we need to support women’s rights advocates who are best positioned to fight for change. Local civil society groups are well placed to identify which laws have the most negative effects in their communities. How can researchers, donors, and advocates outside of local contexts support their efforts?

First, through increased financial resources. In the present system, where subcontractors based in donor countries receive the vast majority of funds allocated by governments to international assistance, too little money is flowing directly to local actors best-versed in communities’ specific priorities, needs, and constraints—including, but not limited to, those related to legal discrimination. In 2016-17, all DAC donors combined allocated USD $430 million to local women’s rights organizations. In contrast, USAID allocated about $1.5 billion to Chemonics International, a single private sector firm, in 2018 alone.

Over time, donors should be dramatically tilting the scales to increase investment in organizations that are locally rooted and operated by those who know their contexts best. Some donor governments (e.g., the Netherlands, Canada) and philanthropic foundations (e.g., the Gates Foundation, the Foundation for a Just Society, the Open Society Foundations, Wellspring, and the Hewlett Foundation) are already on their way to doing so. But there is still lots of progress to make.

Second, researchers should continue to make the case for the impact investments in local women’s rights organizations can have. Some evidence already exists, but more research, and especially research conducted by independent third parties linking investment in women’s rights organizations to legal reform and beneficial outcomes for women and girls, would further solidify the case for investment in local women’s rights organizations among skeptics—or those who simply do not have women’s rights organizations as an investment possibility on their radars. Funds supported by the donors mentioned above present opportunities for researchers to examine and validate this investment model.

Even with evidence of impact, skeptics are likely to point to the traditional difficulties of large donors supporting small, grassroots organizations, often centered on the fact that small organizations have limited resources to access complex procurement channels and meet stringent reporting requirements. This is where we think the Netherlands’ “Leading from the South” fund, the Canadian Equality Fund, the Gates Foundation’s $20 million investment in women’s rights organizations and other similar investments offer a promising model for others to follow. In these investment models, financing flows through feminist organizations (e.g., regional women’s development funds, the Global Fund for Women, Mama Cash) as intermediaries that can facilitate connections to local organizations, and ideally simplify procurement and reporting requirements.

Legal change is an area where rigorous evaluation is often possible, if data is available on the intended impact of that reform. This suggests the possibility of combining financial support for local advocacy with support for evaluating the impact of the changes advocated. Donors could finance the collection and analysis of data to help support advocacy around legal reform, as well as to track the impact of that reform. For example, if grassroots organizations prioritized pushing for reforms around legal permissions to work, existing or commissioned survey work could provide data on women’s labor force participation in sectors where the legal barriers were thought to be particularly binding. It could also track change in participation over time, hopefully including a period after advocacy had been successful and the law was changed. As well as assisting the campaign, this research support would help develop evidence on which reforms and what campaigns were more likely to drive real progress. That information would allow both campaigning organizations and donors to have greater confidence in the impact of future funding rounds and campaigns.

Removing discriminatory laws from the books and enacting new laws promoting gender equality is not an issue of capacity, and in many cases, carries low cost or saves governments money. It is an urgent matter of rights where rapid global progress is not only possible but imperative. Now is past time to start, and supporting women’s rights advocates through financing and rigorous research is the way to jumpstart progress.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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