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Legal Equality is a Prerequisite for Economic Recovery

A woman holds up a sign amid a crowd

From record rates of unemployment to interruptions in the supply chain and lower demand for goods and services, COVID19 has battered the global economy. While these shocks have been felt by nearly every industry and community, women have borne a disproportionate burden of the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

As governments begin to orient toward a post-COVID reality, a critical challenge is rebuilding the economy. Record unemployment has pushed millions of people out of the labor market and on the brink of extreme poverty and some industries that have been shuttered for nearly a year may not recover. It is clear that post-pandemic reconstruction will be a complicated and politically fraught process, but one that must take into account and promote gender equality.

UN Women has found that feminized sectors of the economy, such as domestic care work, healthcare, and the service and hospitality industries, have been hit the hardest by COVID. Because of this, women are 19% more likely to lose employment than men and 72% of domestic workers (80% of which are women) have lost their jobs in 2020. UN Women has also found that 10 million more women than men will be pushed into extreme poverty this year. 

The disparate gendered economic impact of COVID makes it clear that the needs of women – both in the labor market and beyond – must be strategically prioritized by governments. However, a major impediment to improving the lives and livelihoods of women is inequality embedded in family law, whether codified, religious, or customary. In fact, in their most recent edition of Women, Business and the Law released in February 2021, the World Bank found that on average, women have just three-quarters of the codified legal rights of men. 

While good laws alone will not create an equitable, healthy, and prospering society, they are the foundational building blocks to political, social, and economic equality for all. Not only do they dictate what behavior or practices are prohibited, but they also impact the cultural psyche of a nation. If women and girls are treated as second-class citizens under the law, then it reinforces gendered social norms and stereotypes and sanctions discriminatory practices that treat them with less respect and dignity, and perpetuates discrimination, including gender-based violence.

In our 2020 Words and Deeds report, we found examples from around the world of laws that both curtailed women’s economic and financial freedoms as well as confirmed their treatment as inferior to men in the eyes of the law. For instance:

In Cameroon – Article 74 of Cameroon’s Civil Status Registration (Ordinance No. 81-02 of 29 June 1981) provides that a husband may object to his wife’s exercise of a trade different from him in the interest of their marriage or children. 

And in Jordan – A wife who works outside the home is entitled to support from her husband only if the husband has given explicit or manifested consent to the work

Meanwhile, in ChileArticle 1749 of Chile’s Civil Code establishes that the marital partnership is to be headed by the husband, who shall administer the spouses’ joint property as well as the property owned by his wife. 

Section 103 of the Personal Status Code of 1956 of Tunisia states that “Where there are any sons, the male inherits twice as much as the female.”

In addition to the human rights implications, it is also clear that these types of laws are also counterproductive to economic development. When women are prevented from owning property, seeking employment, inheriting money, or have their autonomy stymied in any other way, the economy is worse for it. Thus as countries focus on rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic, reforming or repealing all types of sex-discriminatory laws, and putting in place positive policy measures such as support for child and elder care and equal parental leave, must be prioritized.