Understandably, the literature has often seen gender inequality as a human rights issue. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights introduces the concept of equal protection under the law. When governments use the law to discriminate against women in some way, to create a legal environment that places her at a disadvantage with respect to men, they are clearly in violation of the letter and the spirit of the Declaration.
However, gender inequality obviously has an economic dimension as well. The Women, Business and the Law project (WBL) at the World Bank has, over the years, built up an impressive database that identifies the restrictions faced by women embedded in the law (the Constitution, the Civil Code, family law and other legal instruments) in 173 countries. From this data we have learned, for instance, that the higher the number of such restrictions in a country, the lower the secondary school enrolment rate of girls relative to boys; the bigger the wage gap between women and men; the lower the share of women-owned businesses in the formal private sector; and the lower the labor force participation rate of women relative to that of men.
This latter observation is particularly important because a key driver of economic growth associated with the narrowing of employment gender gaps has to do with bargaining power within families. Not surprisingly, when women work and earn income, they will be more empowered within the home. Beyond the direct personal benefits to her, the economics literature has identified a number of other favorable effects such as higher savings, more productive investments and better use and repayment of credit, all of which are beneficial for economic growth.
Other studies have shown that with greater female power within the household there will be higher investments in the health and education of children, thereby planting the seeds for the accumulation of human capital in the next generation.
One area that has received increasing attention in recent years has to do with the economic dimensions of violence against women. Quite aside from the physical, emotional and psychological costs, violence can also have tangible economic consequences, ranging from women’s reduced capacity to function in society, from permanent disabilities and trauma costs to lower economic productivity and the increased fiscal burden placed on public services and employers. Data from a large number of countries indicate that the economic cost of intimate partner violence is typically between 1 to 2 percent of GDP.
So violence against women is not only a serious crime, but a critical factor influencing a woman’s financial autonomy and agency; it has a direct impact on her ability to seek economic opportunities and stand on a par with men in society. Beyond the human rights perspective, there is strong social and economic rationale for ensuring that women are protected from this pervasive historical form of inequality. In recent years the WBL project has expanded its database to include data on domestic violence and sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. A review of this data suggests at least three important insights:
• Life expectancy for women is higher where they are legally protected from domestic violence. Considering that as recently as 1990 there were only a handful of countries in the world where such legislation existed, one cannot help but think about a century of premature mortality of women associated with the lack of elemental legal protections, most often from intimate partners. A recent paper attempts to quantify the extent of excess mortality associated with the absence of laws addressing domestic violence against women and the results suggest millions of casualties for 95 economies between 1990 and 2012.
• Over the past 25 years the number of countries introducing laws addressing domestic violence has risen rapidly from close to zero to 127 today. Significantly, this increase has been encouraged by international and regional human rights conventions and campaigns. This is encouraging, as there is at times skepticism about the real world impact of UN declarations or other multilateral initiatives. The WBL data clearly shows, for instance, that within 5 years following the adoption of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) in a particular country there is a significant reduction in the number of restrictions embedded in the law against women.
• There is much that remains to be done. There are at least 46 countries that have no laws on domestic violence (e.g., Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Russia, Tanzania), many of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa regions. Furthermore, there are various forms of domestic violence (physical, emotional, sexual, financial/economic) and coverage of the legislation, where it exists, is spotty. Economic violence, for instance, is rarely covered.
Despite the above progress and the growing recognition that societies pay a heavy price for the absence of laws protecting women from violence--from direct costs in terms of health care, social services, police deployment, court and incarceration expenses, to indirect costs in terms of time lost from paid work, second generation effects of violence on children, as well as lost income from premature deaths—there is resistance in many countries to move more aggressively in extending such protections to women. Women’s lack of political empowerment in many countries, for instance, has sometimes led to weak implementation of existing legislation or resistance to the introduction of new legislation due to low levels of female representation in legislative bodies. A recent example of a setback in this area is the adoption by the Russian parliament of a provision which de-criminalizes physical abuse within the family against intimate partners, making domestic violence an administrative offense and reducing the penalty for domestic violence for first time offenders to an administrative punishment.
Nevertheless, there is a shift underway in the debate and the attitudes about the consequences of gender inequality. In particular, we have begun to move away from an emphasis on the desirability of equality of opportunities (e.g, the removal of barriers preventing women to vote) to the need to ensure equality of outcomes (e.g. the speedier elimination of the multiple hidden barriers which have curtailed women’s political empowerment). Accordingly, the Women, Business and the Law project has moved beyond simply documenting the legal restrictions women face by exploring how such restrictions have disempowered women as evident in the 2016 report. Along the way, more and more people have come to realize that gender equality need not be a zero-sum game implying loss for men, but rather that gender equality is about moving to a stage in human evolution where being born a boy or a girl does not determine anymore one’s rights and opportunities to develop one’s human potential.