“Gender inequality remains pervasive around the world, costing the global economy trillions of dollars and denying half of humanity their full rights and equal opportunities,” said Jody Heymann of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, University of California. “Laws and policies shape the environment in which we live and can promote gender equality. Yet, in many cases, laws and policies contribute to gender inequality directly, indirectly, or through omission.”
Heymann, along with colleagues Amy Raub and Aleta Sprague, was presenting information and data to STIAS fellows from their extensive project which has analysed more than 2000 policies in 193 countries affecting human health, development, well-being and equity.
The project aims to shed light on persistent legal gaps and identify in what settings progress has been possible. This is done through a rigorous analysis of laws and policies across countries and a comparison of progress over time to inform policy debates and advance accountability.
“Law and gaps in the law can reinforce inequalities,” said Sprague. “This makes women and girls vulnerable to violence and discrimination, undermines their potential and excludes them from key protections.”
The group presented findings related to education, child marriage and workplace discrimination to illustrate how laws and policies shape opportunities across the life course. Among those laws that perpetuate gender inequality, said Sprague, are “laws that make paid parental leave available only to women, laws that restrict reproductive choice, laws that make girls less likely to go to school, and laws that exclude domestic workers from protection.” They also presented examples of how these data have been used to move from evidence to impact.
The project has constructed policy data which can be paired with implementation and outcome data.
“The sources are primary legal sources – laws, policies and constitutions – as well as secondary sources such as country reports to the United Nations,” said Raub. “Topic selection is based on the availability of research evidence; international global consensus; and, a focus on areas where there is a lack of global policy knowledge.”
“The data are coded by a multilingual and multidisciplinary research team and are subjected to extensive quality checks including double coding, cleaning, verification of outliers, and continuous updating and feedback,” she added.
“We are asking if there is a right, is it implemented and where are the gaps?” continued Heymann. “In the process we are also identifying the global leaders and laggards.”
“These data can be used to better understand how policies affect health and economic outcomes, and the role of policies in countering gender-restrictive norms,” said Heymann.
Turning to the actual numbers, Sprague pointed out that 123 girls are out of school for every 100 boys in sub-Saharan Africa and 41 000 girls under 18 are married every day.
“More than a third of the world allows girls to be married under 18. In 46 countries girls can be married younger than boys. This is legally embedded discrimination by gender,” added Heymann. “The United States legally allows child marriage. Our data show that in the US 78 000 children were married over a four-year period.”
Child marriage is associated with leaving school, increased poverty and a higher likelihood of partner violence.
“Increasing marriage age affects reported violence,” said Heymann. “There are lower reports of physical and sexual violence but more reported emotional violence. It’s not clear if the latter is due to increased awareness and reporting or substitution.”
Since 1995, there has been a general trend towards increased legal marriage age in low- and middle-income countries, however, parental consent continues to undermine protections.
Turning to the impact of education policies, the group pointed out that although many countries have made completing secondary education free, this does not include some countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. This has substantial consequences for girls who are often forced to leave school when money is short. It also has generational impact. The data show that there is lower infant mortality among the children of girls exposed to education. This is linked to more family planning, contraceptive use, availability of skilled birth attendants and up-to-date immunisation of infants.
Increased education is also linked with more shared decision making in relationships.
“The African Union has committed to education,” said Heymann. “So it’s important to understand which countries are low spenders on education but are still charging for education. Some countries may need support from global funds to afford free secondary education but some could make the change with currently available resources.”
“We have come far as a global community on this issue,” she added. “However, we do know, ultimately, that to exit poverty you need secondary education.”
Looking at work-based discrimination, the group pointed out that one third of countries do not prohibit workplace sexual harassment. “Countries with laws provide stronger protections for equality than those without,” Heymann said. “There is, however, imperfect implementation.”
“These are important gaps,” she continued. “Also, women may face multiple discriminations – gender and race or gender and disability, for example—and yet not be fully protected from discrimination by law.”
Parental leave is an important aspect of ensuring equal opportunities at work with benefits for infant health as well. More paid maternal leave leads to fewer infant deaths – an estimated 7.8 fewer deaths per 1000 live births for each additional month of paid leave.
Differences in maternal and paternal leave availability also reinforce gender stereotypes and can badly affect female career opportunities.
“At the current rate of progress, it will take an estimated 202 years to close the gender gap in economic empowerment,” said Sprague. “Women need equal chances at education, economic opportunities, health, equal chances in the family and in the civil and public sphere.”
Areas with less progress
In discussion, the group also addressed the issue of discrimination against the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community.
“LGBT issues still see a lot of backlash,” said Heymann.
“Overall the main areas of regression we have found in equal rights are around the LGBT community and people who migrate. Rights for both groups are moving backwards as well as forward depending on the country. In every other area there are moves toward greater equality in the law and in constitutions.”
Making things happen
“Until recently there was little globally comparative information; it was impossible to track progress and accountability; and, reporting that existed was generally lengthy and inaccessible to the public,” said Heymann.
“We are seeking to make action happen,” added Raub. “Our data are downloadable, plus we produce lay materials, hold webinars and develop research briefs for different stakeholders.”
“We have had some indication that our work is having an effect – in the Philippines lengthier maternity leave and in Ireland paternity leave has been legislated. Partners and policy makers used our data to support the changes. Our data are also being used by the African Union in its campaign to level up child-marriage laws. ”
Speaking of their personal experiences of working with this information and what they find particularly notable, the presenters pointed to the unexpected discrepancies in high-income as well as low- and middle-income countries; the power of considering the law from different angles; the sometimes unexpected outcomes of laws; as well as the influence of history.
“It was initially surprising to see the extent to which the USA is behind on these issues,” said Raub.
“Coming from a legal background, I found it to be a very different way of thinking about the law – from a quantitative not just qualitative viewpoint,” said Sprague. “It’s fascinating to be able to rigorously evaluate how policies that advance gender equality have cross-cutting impacts on other outcomes, for example, how longer paid parental leave improves child vaccination rates.”
And what do they hope for the future of this important work?
“In areas like this we need to focus on both policy implementation and norm change,” Heymann said.
“Understanding law versus practice is vital,” added Sprague. “We need a better understanding of the relationship between the law and norms. From what we can see, the issue of whether norms have to change before the law varies by country.”
“We would like to develop an app where citizens can share their experiences of the implementation of laws. These data would then upload to a global map and links would be provided to local organisations to assist individuals. This would be powerful but requires funding,” Heymann said.
“We would love to see a dozen equivalent centres working on data like this across the world.”
“We want to make change happen – good data and evidence are never enough but they do help. Evidence is one part of the puzzle,” said Heymann. “You need partnerships of global bodies, civil society and policy makers, among others, to bridge the gap from evidence to implementation.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw