Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice

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Justice remains out of reach for millions of the world’s women, a flagship report by UN Women warns

Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice is a comprehensive survey of women's access to justice across the globe, including 10 recommendations to overcome the paradox that while huge improvements have been made in women's legal position , there is still a dramatic lag in translating that into equality and justice.

For women, regardless of whether they live in rich or poor countries, the search for justice is fraught with difficulty and laws and legal systems frequently discriminate against them. At the same time, access to justice underlies every aspect of women's lives, not least their access to land and education.

The report highlights that, in all countries of the world, there are plural legal systems in place, with the formal state system encompassesing different laws for people according to ethnic or religious identity and family laws – marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance are especially likely to be subject to plural legal provisions. In addition, in every country there are local justice institutions, such as village courts, which often exist outside of the purview of the State. Like all legal and justice systems, those based on custom or religious or ethnic identity sometimes discriminate against women. While international law recognises the right of all communities to culture, States also have obligations to eliminate discrimination and ensure access to justice within all justice systems.

The report has an extensive section on women's land rights (from p. 39 ff.). Legal recongition of women's land rights has been growing, with at least 115 countries specifically recognizing women’s equal property rights, but there are regions, including North Africa and Middle East, Sub-Sharan Africa and South Asia, where women's ownership and inheritance rights remain unequal in a large number of countries. Furthermore, even in countries with laws in place, women’s actual control over land is limited - because property laws interact with other legal provisions, including on divorce and inheritance. Women's land rights are also affected by the complex interplay of formal, customary and religious legal systems. Gender blind law reform and implementation can further exacerbate gender inequality.

The report includes an excellent map that visualises discriminatory legal codes and customary practices limit women’s ability to control land on a scale from 0 (no access) to 1 (full access); and highglights highlights best practice around the world, arguing that change can be achieved with innovative policy, for instance:

  • Nepal has trebled female land ownership in the last decade by offering tax exemptions to drive the adoption of new inheritance laws (case study). 

  • The Indian states of Karnataka and Maharashtra amended the Hindu Succession Act in 1994 to give daughters the same inheritance rights as their brothers. Research on the impact of this reform found that, while gender inequality persists, the likelihood of women inheriting property has increased by 22 percentage points. The research also found that the effects increased over time as awareness of the new law grew. In 2005, this reform was replicated at the national level.

  • In Rwanda, the presence of women in parliament (strengthened through a 30% minium quota, now at 51% - the highest in the world) has been a pivotal factor in achieving progressive legal reform on land, marriage and inheritance.

Resource information

Date of publication
January 2011
ISBN / Resource ID
Progress of the World's Women

Geographical Focus