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The regulatory environment for women’s economic participation has improved over the past two years, with 40 economies enacting 62 reforms that will help women – half the world’s population – realize their potential and contribute to economic growth and development, says a new World Bank study.However, it notes that the results are uneven, as women in many countries have only a fraction of the legal rights of men, holding back their economic and social development.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, eleven economies implemented 16 reforms in seven areas, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, which introduced social insurance maternity benefits and equalized retirement ages, while in Côte d’Ivoire, spouses now have equal rights to own and manage property. Mali enacted reforms on non-discrimination in employment. São Tomé and Príncipe adopted a new labor code to meet job market demands and bring laws in compliance with international standards, and South Sudan adopted its first labor law since independence.

According to the World Bank, titled Women Business and the Law 2020, the study measures 190 economies, tracking how laws affect women at different stages in their working lives and focusing on those laws applicable in the main business city. It covers reforms in eight areas that are associated with women’s economic empowerment, conducted from June 2017 to September 2019.

“Legal rights for women are both the right thing to do and good from an economic perspective. When women can move more freely, work outside the home and manage assets, they are more likely to join the workforce and help strengthen their country’s economies,” says World Bank Group President David Malpass, and vows, “We stand ready to help until every woman can move through her life without facing legal barriers to her success.”

The study further notes that areas of Workplace and Marriage saw many reforms, especially in the enactment of laws that protect women from violence, disclosing that in the last two years, eight economies enacted legislation on domestic violence for the first time, while seven economies now have new legal protections against sexual harassment in employment, and twelve economies improved their laws in the area of Pay, removing restrictions on the industries, jobs and hours that women can work.

Globally, the most frequent reforms were in areas related to Parenthood, with 16 economies enacting positive changes, including expansion of the amount of paid maternity leave available to mothers, introduction of paid paternity leave and prohibition of dismissal of pregnant employees.

However, it notes that achieving legal gender equality requires strong political will and a concerted effort by governments, civil society, and international organizations, while legal and regulatory reforms can serve as an important catalyst to improve women’s lives as well as their families and communities.

“This study helps us understand where laws facilitate or hinder women’s economic participation. It has incentivized countries to undertake reforms that can eliminate gender imbalances,” asserts World Bank Group Chief Economist Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg.

Pinelopi underscores, “Achieving equality will take time, but it is encouraging that all regions have improved. We hope that this research will continue to serve as an important tool to inform policy making and level the playing field for women.”

The WBL index measures only formal laws and the regulations which govern a woman’s ability to work or own businesses– a country’s actual norms and practices are not captured. The global average score was 75.2, which improved slightly from 73.9 two years ago. Clearly, much more work remains as women in many countries have only a fraction of the legal rights of men, holding them back from opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship.

The eight areas covered by the index are structured around women’s interactions with the law through their careers: Mobility, Workplace, Pay, Marriage, Parenthood, Entrepreneurship, Assets, and Pension.

Reforms are urgently needed in the area of Parenthood, which scored just 53.9 on average. In almost half of economies that provide any form of paid maternity leave, the burden falls on the employer, making it more costly to hire women. But paid maternity leave can help to retain female employees, reducing turnover cost and improving productivity. These longer-term benefits often outweigh the short-term costs to employers, according to the study.

The study says of the 10 economies that improved the most, six are in the Middle East and North Africa, three are in Sub-Saharan Africa and one is in South Asia. It continues that while there was considerable progress, the Middle East and North Africa remains the region with the most room for improvement, says the study.

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