Economies in sub-Sahara Africa lead in law reforms for women

Tuesday April 04 2023
African women

Women work together to filter the oil extracted from the shea nut, which will be used to make Karite butter in Siby on March 21, 2023. A report released on March 29, 2023 warns about 2.4 billion women of working age continue to suffer discriminatory laws, getting only three-quarters of the legal rights of men. PHOTO | OUSMANE MAKAVELI | AFP


About 2.4 billion women of working age continue to suffer discriminatory laws getting only three-quarters of the legal rights of men, warns a new report interrogating how legal regimes affect women’s decisions and opportunities at various stages in their lives.

The report released on Wednesday, shows that economies in sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) led the way in law reforms for women in 2022, enacting more than half of the reforms recorded. Many of these addressed laws affecting women’s pay and careers after having children.

Still, 330 million women of working age do not have the same legal rights as men.

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In the region, Rwandan women enjoy only 83.8 percent of the legal rights Rwandan men do, standing well above its neighbours of Uganda (81.3), Tanzania (81.3), Kenya (80.6), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (78.8), Burundi (76.3) and South Sudan (67.5), according to the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law Index. The regional average observed across SSA was 72.6 percent, and the average score for Eastern and Southern Africa was 74.1 percent.

The four indicators


Rwanda stands out globally for its efforts in advancing gender equality, scoring highly on four indicators including mobility, workplace, marriage, and assets. Meaning that women have the same legal rights as men in those areas.

However, Rwanda was fingered on the parenthood indicator, in last year's report on laws affecting women’s work during pregnancy and after having children. Maternity and paternity leave schemes can help recognise and redistribute unpaid care work. Rwanda is among a minority of countries in the region that do not grant at least 98 days of paid maternity leave, the standard established by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

“While Kenya has made significant strides in promoting gender equality and women's economic empowerment including the enactment of the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act in 2015, there is still work to be done to ensure that women have the same legal rights as men in all areas covered by the Law index,” said World Bank Country Director for Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda, Keith Hansen.

Some of the strongest performers are economies that began with large gender-related legal gaps in the 1970s.

The study indicates that SSA saw a significant spike in reforms in the 2000s, with the adoption of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol).

Globally, only 14 economies (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) have reached legal gender parity. Here, nearly 90 million women of working age gained legal equality in the last decade.

Afghan women stage a protest in Kabul

Afghan women stage a protest in Kabul on March 8, 2023 for their rights to mark the International Women's Day. PHOTO | AFP

Yet, according to Indermit Gill, chief economist and senior vice president for development economics at World Bank Group, the rate of catch-up has been slow. And at today’s pace, it will take several decades to close the legal gender gap across the world. This means that millions of young women entering the workforce today will have to wait until retirement — many even longer — before they get equal rights.

The slowest shifts

The study which also analyses 53 years of reforms for women’s rights estimates that at the current pace of reform, it would take at least 50 years to approach legal gender equality everywhere.

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“Although great achievements have been made in recent decades, much remains to be done. Globally, on average, women enjoy only 77 percent of the legal rights that men do,” Gill said.

“And nearly 2.4 billion women of working age around the world live in economies that do not grant them the same rights as men,” she added.

The ILO estimates suggest 90 percent of working women in SSA are employed informally compared to 83 percent of men, meaning that they are employed in work that does not provide legal protections.

The slowest shifts have been in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Moreover, in 2022, the global pace of reforms toward equal treatment of women under the law has slumped to a 20-year low. Supposedly due to the slowing global economic growth.

In 2022, only 34 gender-related legal reforms were recorded across 18 economies - the lowest number since 2001.

Research and data highlighting inequalities and the cost of inaction have additionally served as compelling support for reform. In Kenya for instance, research on the poor working conditions of women including unfair compensation and sexual harassment guided the development of historic labour reforms in 2007 that granted equal rights and protections for women.

However, while the gender gap is shrinking in the laws affecting workplace, parenthood, pay and marriage, the catch-up effect has been weakest in notoriously stickier areas of the laws related to mobility, assets, inheritance and entrepreneurship.

Tanzania is among six economies that have implemented several reforms in the past but none for the past 15 years in the areas measured. While it undertook an impressive reform effort in the 2000s, since 2006 it has stagnated in all areas except mobility, workplace and pay.

In Burundi, a new inheritance law has been pending since 2004.

Out of 27 low-income economies examined, 11 economies with the lowest Women, Business and the Law scores are also fragile and conflict-affected situations. Sudan was evaluated as the lowest scoring economy in the region with its women evaluated to enjoy only 29.4 percent of the rights. Other countries were South Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.

A woman fleeing from the fighting in DRC

A woman fleeing from the fighting in DRC between government forces and M23 rebels. Campaigners of gender equality say countries in the Great Lakes region should implement legal instruments meant to boost the representation of women in election management bodies. PHOTO | ALEXIS HUGUET | AFP

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However, Kenya was found not to be doing very well in the areas of parenthood, entrepreneurship, assets and pensions.

“To address these gaps, Kenya may wish to consider implementing policies such as at least 14 weeks of paid leave for mothers, ensuring that this is paid by the government, making paid parental leave available, prohibiting gender-based discrimination in access to credit, allowing women to register a business in the same way as a man, ensuring equal inheritance rights for both spouses and accounting for periods of absence due to childcare in pension benefits,” the report said.

SSA reforms

The global average score on the Women, Business and the Law index rose just half a point to 77.1 from 2021 to 2022. Most reforms focused on increasing paid leave for parents and fathers, removing restrictions on women’s work, and mandating equal pay.

SSA stands as one of the regions that made significant progress last year. The region accounted for more than half of all reforms worldwide in 2022, with seven economies — Uganda, DRC, Malawi, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and Senegal — enacting 18 positive legal changes.

In 2021/22, Uganda removed restrictions requiring married women to obtain marital authorisation when applying for a passport. It also removed the requirement for women to acquire their husbands’ domicile upon marriage by adopting gender-neutral language, that now allows a woman to choose where to live in the same way as a man.

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Also amending previous provisions that favoured sons over daughters in inheritance and denied widows any entitlements to the matrimonial home and other property, redefining a legal heir to include females and guaranteeing equal distribution of the property inheritance rights for spouses and between sons and daughters.

It examines how the law affects women’s decisions and opportunities at various stages in their lives from the essentials of freedom of movement and safety to the reconciliation of work and parenting, women’s economic opportunity, ability to own assets and access credit as well as to the ability to inherit their fair share of property. It looks at 190 economies.

The study notes that for these shifts to happen, international legal mandates, the activism of women’s groups and strategic multi stakeholder coalitions, technical assistance from international development partners as well as the use of research and data are all factors encouraging and supporting the enactment of successful reforms.