Can Legal Reform Help Improve Gender Equality?

September 22, 2015

Do laws make a difference? It may seem an odd question, but there are certainly examples of cases where they don’t have the intended effect. And there is some skepticism in the gender and development field (and elsewhere) that a simple legal change will do much to alter entrenched norms and customs, particularly in countries where the rule of law is fragile.

On Thursday, CGD hosted team members from the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law report, which provides data on both discriminatory and progressive laws related to women and girls across the globe. The event also featured CGD staff working on gender and law issues, and focused on the question: Does changing laws actually make a difference to outcomes? (Follow that last link for the video).

In the vast majority of countries around the world (155 of the 173 examined by the World Bank report), gender-based discrimination is still embedded in law. From family codes limiting women’s inheritance rights to labor laws restricting their eligibility for certain kinds of employment, discriminatory provisions remain an ingrained part of most countries’ legal frameworks.

Beyond that, progressive laws enabling women to participate fully and equally in society, through policies that legally mandate parental leave or criminalize domestic violence, for example, remain limited. But can repealing discriminatory laws and enacting progressive ones make a real difference in advancing gender equality?

The Bank’s Tazeen Hassan cited the example of international conventions such as CEDAW which, although considered ineffectual at times, can serve as useful tools in the hands of grassroots actors seeking to advance gender equality. Citing the reform of India’s inheritance law, she also explained that making national laws gender-equal can have knock-on effects. With a law that enables women to inherit, it’s more likely for households to invest in girls’ education (as mothers are able to pay for their daughters’ education with their own assets) which increases women’s average age of marriage (because girls who stay in school are less likely to get married at young ages).

CGD’s current research on laws against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and child marriage suggest how complex and context-dependent the relationship between law and outcomes can be. In the case of Burkina Faso, preliminary findings from an analysis of DHS data does suggest that the law helped accelerate progress towards low levels of FGM/C – but the law was introduced as norms were already shifting and there was strong civil society and Presidential support for change.

In the case of child marriage, forthcoming work by Matt Collin and Theo Talbot suggests that many countries are passing laws mandating a minimum age of marriage set close to the median age of marriage – perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears a law alone can’t shift behaviors that dramatically. The Bank’s Maitreyi Bordia Das raised the example of the eradication of footbinding in China, which served as a historical case of the impact of legal change when it corresponds with evolving social norms opposing a harmful practice. Conversely, she pointed to the failure of Bangladesh’s law against child marriage to lower prevalence rates, as social norms within the country do not yet favor eradicating the practice.

CGD’s Justin Sandefur suggested additional, extra-legal mechanisms for ensuring that gender-responsive laws translate into improved outcomes: monetary incentives and legal aid support. Referring to research he has conducted on land titling in Tanzania and legal aid programs in Liberia, Sandefur explained that these tools can ensure that more women are able to access and benefit from improved legal rights.

The event generated lots of ideas for future areas of research, including effective enforcement of existing laws, the interaction of law with social norms, and the role of outsiders in influencing national laws related to gender equality. Stay tuned for future research from CGD on all of these topics, as well as research and events focused on mechanisms for advancing gender equality outside of legal reform. Our upcoming November 18, 2015 conference, entitled “Small Incentives, Big Impact,” will turn to the question of what donor institutions can do to most effectively advance outcomes for women and girls. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.