Women, Business and the Law 2018: slow but steady progress

Laura Fernández Lord, Women’s Empowerment Officer, BBVAMF

The World Bank’s latest bi-annual report Women, Business and the Law 2018 analyses the legal situation of women in 189 countries. It monitors seven indicators: their access to institutions, their use of ownership, their possibilities of getting jobs, incentives for employment, protection in court, access to credit and protection against violence. Its publication is a milestone, as it heightens awareness and demonstrates the importance of legal frameworks within which to open up women’s opportunities in business.

Since the report was first published in 2008, much progress has been made, breaking down numerous legal obstacles faced by women. In the last 2 years, 65 countries have passed 87 reforms to increase women’s economic opportunities. Eight of these have been in Latin America. A case in point would be the creation of paid maternity leave in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Paraguay, and the introduction of paid paternity leave in Panama. Nevertheless, nearly half of Latin American countries still fail to comply with the ILO’s norm for paid maternity leave of 14 weeks.

Despite these achievements, not one single country scores 100 on the seven indicators listed above. OECD countries get the highest scores; Middle Eastern and Northern Africa the lowest. In at least a third, women still suffer restrictions to their legal autonomy, and 40% of countries enforce some kind of restriction around property rights. In the last two years, the indicator which has improved most is that of access to employment, followed by access to credit, although with lacunae: 42% of countries score nil, while those in Asia, Africa and the Middle East get under 20 points.

In Latin America, the access-to-credit indicator receives the lowest score (41 points), followed by the scoring on legislation against gender violence (61), access to the judicial system (67) and restrictions in employment (68). Access to institutions and to property rights, at the other end of the spectrum, get the most points, close to 100.

Turning to financial inclusion, a strong institutional environment is key in expanding financial access to women and their businesses. Discriminatory laws affect women’s demand for financial services and may prevent them from saving, taking out loans, paying or insuring their risk. This is nothing new, but has been specified for over 40 years in the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

It is to be regretted that equal rights between men and women are still work in progress when females need to apply for an identity document, open a bank account, sign contracts, administer property (particularly, goods shared in a marriage), or assess financial services. Too many cannot do any of these things in the same circumstances as a man. According to the latest figures from the World Bank’s Global Findex, only two thirds of women in the world have a bank account.  This ratio applies to countries with laws that explicitly forbids gender discrimination in accessing credit (this has been legislated in 72 countries),however, women’s financial inclusion stands at 40% in countries with no such laws.

Some of the indicators linked to women’s financial access look at ownership and employment. Firstly, we can mention the possession of assets, which reduces women’s negotiating scope and their ability to conduct economic activities. The indicator for access to property has made the least progress of all in the last two years: only Ecuador has passed reforms in this area. Property rights allow women to access assets, through inheritance, marital ownership arrangements or property and land registry laws. When such discrimination is removed, women have more financial security and can provide collateral when they start up a business, which is a chance for millions of women in developing countries to escape poverty. In Colombia, for example, rural women who are heads of their household have preference by law to land-access programs.

Secondly, restrictions in employment constrain financial inclusion. There are still 2.7 billion women in the world who cannot choose the same kind of employment as a man. There are laws that restrict the kind of job they can apply for (eg. occupations that are “morally unsuitable”, “nocturnal” or “arduous”, such as mining). In the pursuit of “protecting women and their reproductive health”, 104 countries still have laws that prevent women from carrying out certain activities. Although it is also true that this has been the fastest improving indicator in this two-year period, in Latin America 20% of countries still bar women from “dangerous, arduous or morally inappropriate” jobs, and 16% of the continent bars them from certain industries. We should celebrate the reform passed in Colombia, which has eliminated restrictions in mining and “tough” jobs. It has been proven that they affect entrepreneurship, resulting in lower female participation in the work force and a 15% estimated loss of income in OECD economies. On the contrary, eliminating barriers to employment for women could increase labor participation and productivity worldwide by 25%.

We hope that by the next Women, Business and the Law report in 2020 we can bear witness to more progress in access to credit and to property, in anti-gender violence regulation, in standards of access to the legal system and to employment. Women cannot continue to wait to develop in conditions of parity with men. This demand is laid out in the 2030 Development Agenda too, in its Goal 5 for gender equality, which stipulates the need “to eliminate all sorts of discrimination against women and girls”. The maintenance of legal obstacles prevents them from being able to take the best decisions for themselves and their families, and entails serious economic losses for society as a whole. Women’s loss is indeed society’s loss.