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, according to Jody Heymann of the WORLD Policy Analysis Centre, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, University of California. She says that laws play an important role in shaping 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 presented information and data to fellows at The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in South Africa from their extensive project which has analysed more than 2 000 policies in 193 countries affecting human health, development, well-being and equity. Their project aims to shed light on persistent legal gaps and their work has required rigorous analysis of laws and policies across various countries.

“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 by constructing 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,” said Raub.

Heymann said the data her team has collected and analysed can be used to better understand how policies affect health and economic outcomes, and the role of policies in “countering gender-restrictive norms”.

Child marriage

According to a recent World Bank report, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. The report says that child brides are much more likely to drop out of school and complete fewer years of education than their peers who marry later. They are also more likely to have children at a young age, which affects their health as well as the education and health of their children. The Guardian also recently reported that as many as four in 10 young women in sub-Saharan Africa are married before their 18th birthday. Heymann said this legally embedded discrimination by gender leads to increased poverty and a higher likelihood of partner violence.

Data also 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.

From data to action

Looking at work-based discrimination, Heymann and her team pointed out that one third of countries do not prohibit workplace sexual harassment and even though countries with laws provide stronger protections for equality than those without, there is often imperfect implementation.

She said women often face multiple discriminations based on gender, race and disability. But parental leave also plays an important role, and the amount of maternal and paternal leave reinforces gender stereotypes and can negatively 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.”

Their work is not only about collecting data but also about implementation.

“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 much longer paid parental leave improves child vaccination rates.”

“We would love to see 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. You need partnerships of global bodies, civil society and policy makers, among others, to bridge the gap from evidence to implementation,” said Heymann.