Only six countries worldwide have equal legal rights for women and men

Japan’s male and female sailors demonstrate gender equality.
Japan’s male and female sailors demonstrate gender equality.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A nation’s laws reflect its values and aspirations, and dictate the realities of its citizens. Sad, then that so many legal systems around the world make it more difficult for women to work, earn money, and enjoy freedoms than for men.

In a new report, the World Bank examined 35 indicators of legal equality in 187 countries, covering everything from property ownership and inheritance laws to job protections and pension policies, along with rules governing marriage, movement and travel, pay, and personal safety.

It found that men and women are completely equal, legally speaking, in just six countries, where women are provided with all of the same opportunities as men and legislating protections that promote gender parity, such as parental leave and equal pay laws.

The stellar six

The good news is that, as a globe, we are making progress. A decade ago, not a single nation met all the criteria laid out by the World Bank when measuring equality. In 2019, six economies–Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden–scored 100 on the index, meaning that women have equal rights with men in the 35 measured areas.

It’s notable, too, that sub-saharan Africa, as a region, had the most reforms in the last 10 years. In that area, there were 71 different laws passed in the last decade that allowed women to start jobs and provided recourse from workplace harassment and domestic violence. By contrast, economies in the Middle East and North Africa enacted only 19 reforms during the same time, including new domestic violence laws in Algeria, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

The needed fix

Much more work remains to be done if men and women are to operate equally around the world. On the whole, women have only three-quarters of the legal rights that men enjoy, according to the new index. The legislative disparities lead to harsh realities, constraining the ability of women worldwide to work, start businesses, and make economic decisions that are best for them and their families.

The dismal statistics are not only disheartening for the billions of women who are not operating on a level playing field. They also indicate that many economies are not functioning optimally and that countries are depriving themselves of wealth.

“If women have equal opportunities to reach their full potential, the world would not only be fairer, it would be more prosperous as well,” said World Bank Group interim president Kristalina Georgieva in a statement. “Change is happening, but not fast enough, and 2.7 billion women are still legally barred from having the same choice of jobs as men.”