Making The Law Work for Women


One in three women will experience sexual violence in their lives. This is despite most countries – 155 according to the World Bank – having some kind of domestic violence legislation on the books. The vast majority of sexual assaults and rape incidents also go unreported, uninvestigated, and unprosecuted. In the United States alone, less than one percent of all instances of rape lead to felony convictions.

While many governments have passed laws to improve gender parity, implementation and enforcement too often falls short. Ensuring legal reforms make a tangible difference for women in their everyday lives requires a whole-of-government approach, matched with adequate resourcing and access for women to claim their rights. Sustained commitment to gender equality also requires greater accountability from all sectors of society



The whole-of-government must take responsibility for implementing and adequately resourcing reforms, instead of delegating it to a single ministry. National policies and commitments must reflect the needs of the women who are most impacted by them, involve community members in broad consultations, and ensure women are included in leadership and decision-making roles.

  • In 2014, Sweden adopted a groundbreaking “Feminist Foreign Policy,” which put gender equality and women’s rights at the center of its foreign policy agenda. As part of the government-wide focus on gender equality, Sweden has focused on implementing its extensive legal framework aimed at preventing violence against women. This includes a budget in the national Gender Equality Agency to implement prevention measures such as police-led awareness and public outreach campaigns, prison reform programs aimed at perpetrators of intimate partner violence, and public school interventions. Following the adoption of a National Strategy to End Violence against Women and Girls in 2017, the rates of reported sexual assaults in Sweden fell for the first time since 2012. 
  • Canada, Luxembourg, France, and Mexico have announced their own feminist foreign policies. Canada has also released a Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19: a gender-based recovery plan focused on tackling systemic inequities for women and rebuilding a more inclusive economy.



Using innovative models can better facilitate women’s legal empowerment and access to justice. 

  • One-stop centers for women survivors of intimate partner violence have proven successful by helping overcome reporting barriers and providing high-quality care. A UN study on legal aid found that at least 64 countries provide legal advice and court services in one place to female survivors of violence, facilitating their access to justice and helping bridge the gap between laws and practice.
  • Mobile courts – temporary courts in rural or remote regions – provide access to justice for people otherwise neglected by the system. In Somaliland, the UN Development Programme and the Ministry of Justice set up mobile courts in the five regional capitals. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the mobile court program is a collaborative undertaking of Congolese NGOs, the American Bar Association, the Open Society Foundation, and other international NGOs – largely benefitting women.
  • SheSays India is an NGO that empowers women to act against sexual violence by providing key information about their rights, as well as legal, medical and psychological support. SheSays has partnered with universities and social organizations in India to engage more than 60,000 young people through educational workshops and online, creating awareness, providing support to survivors of sexual violence, and mobilizing youth to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.



Increasing women’s participation in justice and security sectors, and putting them in leadership roles, can build confidence in government and strengthen reporting. 

  • In Ukraine, leaders in the Ministry of Internal Affairs catalyzed women’s inclusion in the new police force by ensuring that at least a quarter of recruits were women. The resulting higher number of women police officers has gone hand in hand with an increase in reports of domestic violence, likely because survivors trust women police officers.
  • The gradual rollout of all-women justice centers in Peru and all-women police stations in India have been associated with increased reporting of gender-based violence.



Greater accountability is needed to ensure that governments and international institutions fully implement their gender commitments. Several strategies have emerged as key:

1) Governments must ensure robust implementation of laws by holding their own institutions and the private sector accountable and tracking their progress. 

  • Germany and Iceland are key examples of countries working to implement their equal pay laws in practice. German companies with more than 500 employees are required to publish reports on their efforts to achieve equal pay, and in Iceland, companies with 25 or more employees require government-issued equal pay certification.
  • In the United States, a dozen states legally prohibit employers from asking potential hires for salary history, a practice that disproportionately disadvantages women and minority workers. By exposing practices and norms that create gender pay gaps, states hold themselves accountable to addressing pay disparities.

2) Mobilizing civil society organizations and campaigns against inaction is critical for ensuring governments and international partners implement their commitments.

  • Women’s NGOs in Liberia had a strong impact on the implementation of the country’s rape laws following the civil war in 2003. By creating gender-responsive policy documents, including the 2006 Gender Based Violence National Action Plan, introducing amendments to existing rape policies, and advocating for the establishment of a specialized sex crimes prosecution unit, women were able to exert pressure on the government and hold them accountable. See examples of other successful campaigns in India, Nicaragua, and Armenia
  • Organizations like Gender Action are working to hold International Financial Institutions (IFIs) accountable to their gender equality commitments by collaborating with civil society monitors and local community groups. In response to Gender Action’s oversight, the World Bank has financed dozens of projects aimed at combating GBV; promoted ending GBV in its 2015 gender strategy, and committed to establishing a Task Force to fight GBV in 2016.

3) Expanding the collection of sex-disaggregated data will hold states accountable to their gender parity targets. 

  • The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law Index is a key resource for mapping the discriminatory laws that affect women’s economic opportunities. By collecting data on and exposing policies that restrict women’s economic empowerment across the world, the Index spotlights critical areas for reform.
  • At the national level, Sweden requires all government agencies to publish annual reports that include sex-disaggregated statistics. Israel, Norway, and Spain have also mandated the regular collection of sex-disaggregated data in order to promote accountability and make gender equality visible across society. 
  • Governments that require large employers to publish sex-disaggregated salary statistics include Australia, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. In Denmark, for example laws require companies with more than 10 employees to produce annual gender-segregated wage statistics. After mandatory reporting was introduced in 2006, the pay gap in Denmark declined by 2 percentage points.