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Women, business and the law:  how do legal restrictions affect women in business?

A new report by the World Bank presents key findings in legislation that continues to restrict women’s economic opportunities in 143 countries.

Pursuing a professional career or job seems to be a viable option for millions of young females around the world who are eager to be economically independent or climb out of poverty. This is a huge change from even just 50 years ago, and is still a challenge in many countries today, regardless of their level of economic development.

These are the findings of the World’s Bank Women, Business and the Lawproject, which recently launched the third edition of its biannual report. The report focuses on economic legislation in 143 countries on the basis of gender differentiation. The report covers six areas of knowledge including Accessing Institutions, Using Property, Getting a Job, Providing Incentives to Work, Building Credit, and Going to Court. This year’s report also included a pilot research on a seventh area, Protecting Women from Violence, which examined laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment in 100 of those economies. Key findings were introduced and discussed at the Americas Society / Council of the Americas in New York City.

“The project’s goal is to collect and research regulatory legislation that either facilitates or impedes equal participation of women in economic life, from access to jobs to managing property or even access to capital and incentives that allow them to start a business,” Sarah Iqbal, coordinator of the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law project, told LBC.

Even if an equal legal setting existed in many countries, enforcement is not always achieved or practiced. The idea, according to Iqbal, is to first establish a baseline looking at the law stage in each economy. In the long-term, the project would like to include data on implementation of the law aimed at improving and enforcing existing legislation while trying to promote new regulation if needed.

This edition’s report covers two new aspects, one looking at the last 50 years of legislation while the other focuses on the last two years –up to April 2013. “Particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been a favorable evolvement of legislation in 18 countries, especially in laws related to gender violence and violence in the workplace,” said Paula Tavares, a member of the team who currently focuses on the legal and regulatory framework that impacts women’s economic capabilities.

“Fourteen out of 18 countries have improved their employment and sexual harassment legislation,” Tavares told LBC. “We are also beginning to look at the wording in services offered in each country, such as legal assistance and help lines, the number of women in police stations, and laws that create the mechanics of the response procedures,” she added.

Tavares believes the improved legislation is the result of a big push from women in the labor force, women entrepreneurs, and women’s groups advocating for equal rights in the workplace. “Brazil is a good example of new legislation, but implementation of the law is still difficult,” she said, referring to the Lei Maria da Penha/Law N.11.340(2006), sanctioned by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which not only increased punishment for offenders of domestic violence towards women but also included same-sex partners.

Another positive trend in Latin America is regulation of paid leave both for maternity and paternity. “While the United States does not have a mandatory paid maternity or paternity leave legislation, countries in South America have improved related legislation for both parents. For instance, Bolivia now pays three days for paternity leave and Mexico has increased it to five paid days, while Colombia increased paid maternity leave from 84 to 98 days and Venezuela, from 126 to 182 days,” Iqbal explained.

The report examines legislation in an objective way, without judging or ranking countries but with the purpose of establishing an informed database from which future action might be planned and taken. “Women’s ability to earn an income or run their own businesses might be affected by laws that are so protective they end up prohibiting them from working in certain industries which are deemed unsafe for them.For instance, labor laws in Argentina ban women from certain jobs in mining and metalworking. While the risk is understandable, those jobs may bebetter paid than lower paying jobs in manufacturing or services. In the same conditions, those jobs might also be unsafe for men,” Iqbal said.

During a 50-year span –from 1960 to 2010- the researchers observed a clear change in Latin America and the Caribbean’s legal capacity for discrimination of women in several areas including use and administration of property and access to institutions.

“We noticed that legislation started changing in Latin America and the Caribbean after the Franco regime ended in 1975. With the Spanish transition into democracy, laws constraining women’s legal capacity and property rights were removed in Spain and subsequently, many of these legal constraints were also removed in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay,” Iqbal shared.

Both Iqbal and Tavares agreed that the scope of improvement is exciting, regardless of many changes still needed. None of the countries’ legislation has gone backwards but each region’s reform is working at its own pace. In the past two years, the project recorded 59 legal changes improving legal parity for women in 44 economies. Most variation is seen in labor and employment law while property law is, in nature, a less dynamic area for change. “Our next step is to look at budgetary commitments and government action for implementation of the law,” Iqbal concluded.  

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