Women´s Rights? Laws vs. Reality

A colleague of mine who knows I am passionate in my fight for women´s rights and that I love to geek out on data, recently sent me a cool new chart outlining women´s rights across the globe, using World Bank and UN datasets. Perfect, a merging of my two worlds!

As a data geek I was impressed and quickly began clicking away, sorting by country, subject matter, region, and so forth. Check out this beautifully designed dataset. But the more I clicked through it, the realization, yet again, set in. No matter the country, when it comes to women´s rights, there is the official law and then there is the reality.


Don´t get me wrong, it is important to have the laws. Yes, we need to have the laws! And ideally those laws get there by grassroots support and local coalitions that include not just “experts” but engaged citizens who are influencing the political will. Laws that get enacted through a check the box process because random country a. thinks random country b. will give them more money and support if they look to be in compliance with things the “West” cares about, do very little good, and in fact may do harm in the long run.

Let us not forget that laws must be made meaningful because they are implemented in such a way to change behavior, this is the whole point. We want to change the behavior of courts, implementing agencies, law enforcement, Parliaments, Presidents, fathers, daughters and on and on and on.

The rigidness of global development projects with their formal indicators, matrixes, or convoluted ways of measuring impact, sometimes move us away from this very basic question. Are we changing attitudes and behavior? Are these laws helping us create a more enabling environment for making women´s rights meaningful?

As a friend in Albania pointed out after looking at the data, ¨In the case of Albania, the legal framework regulating domestic violence seem just fine, while only last Friday, we faced a gruesome killing of a 21 year old girl by her father and two brothers in one of the villages in the northern part of Albania. The autopsy revealed that the girl was five months pregnant and was shot with eight bullets in her chest.”

Sadly, violence against women is commonplace, no matter how great the laws are, but do these laws that we work so hard to get in place really curb behavior, raise public awareness, or create public outrage? What is their impact? A legal framework, whether dealing with violence, workplace equality, reproductive rights, is important, but our job is only halfway done if the status of women in reality does not change.

As international development advocates, sitting at another conference, putting together yet another report, organizing event after event, are we really moving the ball forward? This chart would lead us to say yes. In reality, the results are more mixed.

So let us continue to work on that legal framework and innovative policy solutions, but not forget that engaging people, changing the hearts and minds of individual people is the kind of change we should be focused on, not just creating pretty datasets.