Executive summary

This report provides an overview of the main outcomes of the SIGI in relation to women and the family, their physical integrity, access to productive and financial resources and their civic rights. Building on these outcomes, the report provides a set of policy recommendations to enhance governments’ efforts to deliver their gender-equality commitments.

Greater gender equality in laws and social norms represents an opportunity for governments to achieve Agenda 2030

By restricting women’s contribution to sustainable and inclusive development, discriminatory laws, social norms and practices have negative consequences, not only for women’s well-being but also for their families and entire societies. Such discrimination induces a loss of 8% in the global level of investment, reduces women’s average years of schooling by 16% and decreases labour force participation by 12%. As a result, the current level of discrimination, as measured by the SIGI, reduces global income by 7.5%, a loss of USD 6 trillion, or USD 1 552 per capita. If gender parity in social institutions can be achieved by 2030 it could increase the world’s GDP growth by 0.4% every year until then.

Promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment requires political and social commitments and action. Yet, economic growth by itself cannot achieve gender equality. If wealthier OECD countries have lower levels of discrimination, it is not the result of economic development but, rather, of long-term political and social investments in gender equality. Most OECD countries have implemented highly gender-responsive legal reforms and policies over the past century, fostering a long process of shifts in patriarchal social norms. Most OECD countries have opened new avenues for women’s economic, political and social empowerment. Consequently, they have benefited more from women’s economic contributions. Indeed, in 2014 women contributed 38% in Western Europe’s GDP compared to 18% in the Middle East and North Africa.

Building on the momentum for greater gender equality, progress has been made since the last edition of the SIGI

New legislation to enhance gender equality and abolish discriminatory laws reflects increasing political commitment. Since the last edition of the SIGI in 2014: 15 countries have enacted legislation to criminalise domestic violence (e.g. Algeria and Solomon Islands); 15 countries have eliminated legal exceptions that allow underage (<18) girls to marry (e.g. Democratic Republic of the Congo and Panama); 8 countries introduced legal measures to promote gender-balanced representation in elected public offices (e.g. Republic of Moldova and Timor-Leste); paid maternity leave is guaranteed in all but Papua New Guinea and the United States; Iraq and Senegal have removed discriminatory requirements regarding women’s passport and ID applications, respectively.

Similarly, transformative gender policies and programmes are starting to produce results: some social norms that are detrimental to equality have become less prominent. Social acceptance of domestic violence is becoming less common; while 50% of the female population globally said they thought it was acceptable under certain circumstances in 2012, the proportion who expressed that view in 2014 had dropped to 35% and, by 2018, the proportion was 27%, which may still be shocking, but is, nonetheless, almost half what it had been six years before. In Sudan, the proportion of women who said they supported female genital mutilation (FGM) declined from 27% to 18% between 2014 and 2018. This attitude shift and the resulting decrease in the practice of “cutting” make a compelling case for public health policy to eradicate FGM.

Yet, improvements are too slow, due to legal discriminations, loopholes and inadequacies, weak implementation of laws, and discriminatory customary laws and social norms

It will take at least two centuries (or nine generations), at the current rate of change and despite increasing investments and efforts over the last 25 years, to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #5: Achieve Gender Equality and Empower Women and Girls. In many countries, political commitments, legal reforms and gender-sensitive programmes are still not being translated into real changes for women and girls. On a global level, the prevalence of girl child marriage has stagnated at 16%, the proportion of women who have suffered intimate partner violence at least once in their lives has remained unchanged since 2012, and fewer than 24% of parliamentary seats are occupied by women, only two points better than in 2014.

Several interrelated reasons explain why progress is so slow. Among them:

  • Legal discriminations and loopholes continue to constrain women’s opportunities. Nearly half of all countries (88) prohibit women from entering certain professions; the majority of countries (108) impose conditions on legal abortion (mother’s life at risk, pregnancy by rape, foetal impairment, or the protection of the physical or mental health of the woman); 32 countries prohibit women from remarrying within a specified period of time after a divorce; and 29 countries do not grant female surviving spouses and daughters the same rights as their male counterparts to inherit land and non-land assets. In certain cases, legal loopholes also allow discrimination to continue, despite the supposed equality or protection of women’s rights. For example, while most countries set the minimum legal age of marriage at 18, early marriage continues to be possible and practiced because of derogations for parental or judicial consent for (112 countries). While almost all countries have criminalised rape, in 11 countries perpetrators can escape prosecution if they marry the victim.

  • Existing laws and programmes are not always adequate. Legislation on violence against women, for example, does not evolve at the same pace as the diversity of violence available to predators. New forms of violence have emerged with digitalisation, such as online harassment and stalking, that are not covered by previous legal reforms. The criminalisation of sexual relations outside marriage in Mauritania puts rape survivors at risk. In Ghana, in addition to a lack of consent, the law also requires proof of penetration. However, victims are often unable to pay the medical fees necessary to provide such proof and sue the man who has raped them.

  • Implementation and enforcement of the law is uneven within and across countries and can take time. Legal reforms, particularly changes in statutory law, typically take time because of the need to build a constituency to support legislative bodies. Moreover, such reforms may lead to changes in the behaviour of elected officials, judges and civil servants. For example, courts of law may rule based on the new guidelines regarding the settlement of marital disputes; once both spouses are allowed to own property equally, support may grow for efforts to register land jointly in men’s and women’s names, thus depriving women of sole title when they may be entitled to it. Living far from courts also impinges on the enforcement of women’s rights and leaves them more exposed to pressure from societal prejudice. In Ethiopia for example, evidence of the implementation of 2003 reforms of community-based land registration and changes in the Family Code from 2000 were only significantly observed in 2009.

  • Lack of information, limited legal literacy and restricted access to justice make women unable to claim their rights. In Burkina Faso for example, nine inhabitants in ten do not know that the law mandates equal inheritance rights for women and men. Kenyan property law provides a married woman the right to own property which means she can sue her husband to protect her rights. Case law under this legislation establishes that, in case of division of family property, women are entitled to half of the family property if they can prove contribution. However, in practice, rural women do not benefit from this law as many of them are not aware of their rights and often end up with much less than half of the family property.

  • Where customary laws and social norms still largely determine communities’ and individuals’ behaviour, standard policies to promote gender equality are insufficient to create the necessary social transformation. In some African countries, for example, dowry, which is banned by law, is practiced in almost all betrothals and 80% of the population will not abandon it because of religious or traditional beliefs. In Bolivia, indigenous women experience double discrimination as do not benefit from the improved legal framework because they are still governed by discriminatory indigenous laws.

Social norms can be double-edged swords for women: they can act as either barriers or agents of change

Norms around girls’ education have been positive drivers of social change. In Asian and African countries, for example, parents place greater value on girls’ education and young men aspire to marry educated young women, who can financially support the family. This increased value given to educated women has had positive consequences for delaying the age at first marriage and pregnancy, while correcting the unbalanced sex ratio at birth. The removal of prohibitions on certain jobs has also reduced gender segregation at work.

However, social expectations on gender roles still stigmatise working mothers and women in politics, negatively affecting women’s economic and political leadership. Half of the world’s population believes than children will suffer when the mother takes paid outside the home and continues to believe that men make better political leaders than women. Some communities force-feed girls to be fatter and, hence, more desirable for marriage, with the belief that heavier girls appear wealthier and more attractive to men. At the other extreme, in most OECD countries, the social norm of thinness seriously affects women’s psychological well-being and self-esteem, health and health-related behaviours, relationships with others, and careers.

The most difficult area of change is the family

In all regions of the world, women face the highest levels of discrimination in their own households, especially when their caring and domestic responsibilities within the family are concerned. Globally, women undertake 75% of unpaid care and domestic work. In some Asian and African countries, laws and social norms governing family matters still subordinate women’s status to their husband’s authority: 41 countries solely recognise a man as the head of household; 27 countries require women to obey their husbands by law; 24 countries require women to have the permission of their husbands or legal guardians to choose a profession or work. Even within best performing regions (Europe and the Americas), a woman’s role is often confined to her traditional reproductive and caring responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the most pervasive and conservative social norms still govern the private sphere, which has considerable consequences for women’s economic, social and political empowerment and leadership. Policies to protect women's workplace rights and promote more balanced political representation are important and contribute to recognising women’s equal access to political, social and economic empowerment. Yet, legal protection is not enough. Women will be unable to access equal opportunities and fully benefit from inclusive and sustainable development if their families continue to express negative attitudes about them, such as stigmatising working mothers. As long as society expects women to bear the brunt of unpaid care and domestic work, or that they are denied equal status and decision-making power in their household, real change will not happen and legal reforms will only have a limited effect.

While some discriminatory social institutions are region-specific, others are universal

Restrictions on women's physical integrity, such as female genital mutilation, and missing women are concerns mainly in Africa and Asia, respectively. However, violence against women at home inflicted by intimate partners and/or at work or in the public space by acquaintances or strangers is a global issue. Similarly, the unequal distribution of burdensome caring and domestic responsibilities affects all women across the globe, wherever they live or whatever their level of education or income.

Women living in African and Asian countries face higher levels of discrimination. Legal reforms and a shift in discriminatory social norms have made European countries the best performers, overall, with an average level of discrimination as measured by the SIGI of 17%,1compared to 25% in the Americas,2 36% in Asian countries3 and 40% in African countries.4 North Africa and Southern Asia are most in need of efforts to eradicate discriminatory laws and to address social norms that lead to gender discrimination in practice.

The SIGI’s theory of change calls for an adaptive, whole-society approach to advancing gender equality

Gender-based discrimination is a lifelong problem for women and girls that requires a life-cycle approach for change to take hold. Gender inequalities begin even before birth and continue until old age. Discrimination against the girl child, such as sex-selective abortion and unequal intra-household investments in caring for, nurturing and allocating resources to sons and daughters, limits her likelihood to survive. Similarly, early marriage limits girls’ education, increases their chances of adolescent pregnancy and restricts their decision-making authority within the family, as well as a woman’s ability to make informed choices about her income or her family’s well-being. Gender-transformative policies and programmes should consider how discrimination in multiple forms overlaps throughout a woman’s life.

Effective gender-transformative policies and programmes should abandon the one-size-fits-all approach and tailor diverse approaches to women depending on their specific circumstances. Indeed, women are not a homogenous group, nor have all women benefitted from new legal rights, economic opportunities or evolving social norms. Poor, less educated and rural women are at higher risk, as a result of intersectional discrimination, than other women may be.5 Often, policies overlook the realities of women facing cumulative discrimination that need particular consideration and remedies. Such women may be – and often are – underserved and even more marginalised.

The multidimensional aspect of gender discrimination requires going beyond the “usual” mainstreaming approach and effectively implementing an integrated multi-sectoral strategy. Gender mainstreaming, as it has been implemented to date, has shown limitations. Since 1995 and the Beijing Platform for Action, gender mainstreaming has often merely been used as rhetoric by governments or suffered from tokenism by development organisations: it has not really affected the lives of men and women all over the world. Far from being a marginalised issue, gender equality calls for a more integrated and multi-sectoral approach. Governments should use a multiple-points-of-entry strategy that clearly understands the complexity of the political economy, involving all concerned ministries and not just Gender Ministries.

Eliminating discriminatory laws, social norms and practices requires a “whole-of-society approach’’, including governments, development co-operation stakeholders, local civil society, foundations, the private sector and, of course, women, themselves. This may also include teachers, health professionals, justice and police officers, the media, the private sector and others.

Locally designed and place-specific solutions combined with adequate legislation are indispensable for social change to happen. Drivers of change are multiple. Legal reforms can drive social transformation. Nevertheless, a context where statutory and customary laws coexist in a plural-legal system requires involving community and religious leaders and thus cannot start solely with legal reforms initiated by policy makers. In addition, shifting social norms is not a gendered responsibility; the engagement of all – women and men, girls and boys – is indispensable.


← 1. The European countries’ average ranges from 8% in Switzerland to 27% in Greece.

← 2. The Americas countries’ average ranges from 18% in the United States to 40% in Haiti.

← 3. The Asian countries’ average ranges from 16% in Australia to 64% in Yemen.

← 4. The African countries’ average ranges from 22% in South Africa to 57% in Guinea.

← 5. Intersectional discrimination refers to the overlap of discrimination against certain women who belong to more than one category. These inequalities include ethnicity, education, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion/belief, economic status or place of residence (see Chapter 2 Box 2.1). For example, a black woman may be subjected to labour market discrimination both because she is a woman (gender discrimination) and because she is black (racial discrimination).

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