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LatAm Minute: When the Law Is Not on Women’s Side

The World Bank's Sarah Iqbal

Sarah Iqbal presenting Women, Business and the Law.

September 28, 2015

Latin American laws are addressing women's double burden of balancing work and at family.
90 percent of countries have at least one legal barrier blocking women's economic engagement.

“[W]hen we talk with women in Latin America, they talk about the balance between family life and working life...they talk about the double burden,” says Sarah Iqbal, project coordinator at the World Bank. Her research focuses on legal barriers to women’s entrepreneurship and employment in 173 economies around the world. Even though reforms are already underway across Latin America to boost gender equality, Iqbal says that more incentives for women to work should be in place. 

“If childcare is tax deductible, than that changes the dynamic. If the government is providing childcare, that changes the dynamic. If the government is subsidizing private childcare providers, that changes the dynamic,” Iqbal explains.

The report Women, Business, and the Law is in its fourth edition and analyzes indicators such as restrictions for women to get a job, use their property for work, file court claims, build credit, and receive incentives to join the workforce such as childcare. Even after increasing the number of countries included in the report last year, the research still found that 90 percent of them present at least one legal barrier for women to participate in their economies. 

In Argentina, for example, women cannot work producing or handling explosives or flammable materials. In Bolivia, husbands can request their wives be fired if they believe the work is interfering with family interests. In Chile and Honduras, women cannot be considered heads of households. 

This type of law has a cost. Iqbal says that legal restrictions hinder women from opening small- and medium-sized enterprises. The numbers lead to a 14 percent loss in income in Latin America and the Caribbean because women do not have the same entrepreneurship opportunities. “If you are artificially locking out a portion of your population, they can’t add to growth, they can’t add to innovation,” Iqbal says.

Still, the region is making progress. In the last two years, Mexico has declared childcare tax deductible and Nicaragua introduced paternity leave and improved women’s property rights in cases of divorce. 

For Iqbal, new laws are the first step for changing institutions, leading to change in social norms. “[We] can have a conversation on what can make it easier for women,” she says. “There are all these things that we can implement to make [things] more equal.”