Report finds that constitutions block women from experiencing equal rights and opportunities
Twenty years after the historic Beijing conference on women’s empowerment, more than 170 countries still have legal barriers in place preventing women from experiencing the same rights, protections and liberties as men and boys, according to a new report on trends in gender equality around the world.
The World Policy Analysis Center at UCLA’s Fielding school of Public Health also found that more than 150 countries lacked protections needed to ensure women’s full participation in the economy, with only 64 countries constitutionally guaranteeing protection against discrimination at work or equal pay for equal work.
The report contains a series of policy briefs that examined trends and legislation in 197 countries and signatories to the Beijing platform for action, which envisioned gender equality in all dimensions of life. The briefs were released at the start of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
“Despite the health, economic and ethical motivations for achieving gender equality, women and girls continue to have access to fewer opportunities than men and boys around the world. Closing the gender gap remains one of our greatest challenges,” the report said.
“Too many girls still face early marriage or barriers to post-primary education. Too many women lack the economic resources that could lift them from poverty, protect them from violence, and safeguard their own and their children’s health … These persistent inequalities greatly compromise the potential of girls, boys, women, and men everywhere,” it added.
Most constitutions guarantee measures to ensure girls’ right to primary education and to protect women’s political rights, including the right to vote, right of association and right to hold legislative office. But protections lag in areas of economic and social rights, such as health, work, and marriage.
There has been some progress: Over the past 20 years, more than 95% of the 56 new national constitutions legally guarantee women’s general equality.
Australia is among 32 countries whose constitutions do not explicitly guarantee gender equality, while the US has a general guarantee of equality, but not specifically for gender. Eleven constitutions still allow customary or religious law to supersede constitutional protections of gender equality.
Dr Jody Heymann, founding director of the World Policy Analysis Center and dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said constitutions were “a crucial toolkit”, which allowed people to claim their rights.
“That’s why they are so powerful. What they don’t do is magically, like a wand, change everything on the ground instantly the minute they are passed. They are a … powerful tool, but they are a tool,” she said.
Gaps remain between rights guaranteed in constitutions and implementation.
In Kenya, for example, the 2010 constitution states that no more than two-thirds of members of any public body should be of the same gender. In 2013, to abide by that clause, women were given one-third of cabinet posts, but there are still only 68 women in the national assembly, 19% of the total 350.
“We are supposed to enact a rule by August to ensure we have the one-third gender quota but we still can’t work out how we will get the proportions (of women MPs),” said Esther Murugi Mathenge, a former minister and sitting MP, who was in London last week.
“It is causing shivers because every man is asking, ‘Am I going to be asked to forfeit my seat?’ Who will forfeit their seat? No one. So you can see the battle we have,” she said.
The World Policy Analysis Center said only 21% of constitutions grant the right to equal pay for equal work, while just 19% protect women from discrimination at work.
“While constitutional prohibitions on gender discrimination in employment have significantly increased over time, constitutional guarantees of equal pay for equal work are only slightly more common today than before Beijing,” the report found.
Linked to this issue is maternity and paternity leave, Heymann said. Paid maternity leave is guaranteed in 188 countries but not in the US. Heymann said the argument that a constitutional guarantee was not necessary, as most companies provided paid maternity leave anyway, simply was not true.
“Less than one in five women get paid maternity leave from their companies in the US,” she said, noting that the number referred to women in the formal economy.
“The reality is that without the legal protection, women in the US don’t get anywhere near that fundamental right to maternity leave that dramatically changes their ability to succeed in the workplace, have an equal income in the long run … as well as equal participation at home,” she said.
“The US can and should introduce paid parental leave … The data clearly shows that the US can afford it.”
Another area where progress was needed, Heymann said, was paid leave for fathers.
“We’ve had this big blind spot, as a global community, for the need for paid paternity leave. While there are only nine countries that don’t have paid maternity leave, there are 101 that don’t have paid paternity leave. That means that the law reinforces the stereotype that women are going to be the caregivers,” she said.
The new studies, which include a series of maps documenting different aspects of women’s rights, aim to provide clear, transparent data for citizens so they can see how their countries fare in relation to others.
“Before we did these maps, for many of the areas, you had to read 20,000 pages of legislation in multiple languages. That’s inaccessible,” Heymann said.
As world leaders prepare to finalise targets to drive development priorities for the next 15 years, there are mounting calls for more reliable data to shape the global debate on the sustainable development goals.
“We need to know where we stand, not only on outcomes but on the levers that will successfully achieve better outcomes,” said Heymann.
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