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Is a tipping point nearing in the fight for women's rights?

A global consensus is emerging that equal rights and equal access to education and professional opportunity for women not only affirm women’s rights as human rights, but also have economic benefits. Global law firms can play an important role in advancing the unprecedented momentum for women's rights.

In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Often described as an international bill of rights for women, the Convention came about after decades of debate on the most appropriate and effective instrument to establish and protect the rights of women. It is the first comprehensive and internationally binding agreement to counter discrimination against women.

It is becoming widely recognized that empowering women is a powerful tool for the growth and stability of any society.
Jo Weiss, Head of Social Responsibility, White & Case

Much progress has been made since CEDAW's adoption, which was coincident with the massive entry of women into the professional workforce in many countries. Today there are more women in positions of authority, more countries providing equal rights to women, more women with access to education and healthcare, and more laws protecting women and girls from violence than ever before.

At the same time, serious challenges such as child marriage, honor killings, high maternal mortality rates and lack of access to education, land and healthcare still exist. Even where there has been legal reform, laws are often not enforced, for reasons ranging from corruption to unsupportive cultural norms to the victims' ignorance of their rights.

Jo Maitland Weiss, Head of Social Responsibility at White & Case, sees opportunity in these challenges for global law firms to help improve the legal status of women at a time of great momentum in many societies. "Despite many complexities and challenges that vary greatly from country to country, it is becoming widely recognized that empowering women is a powerful tool for the growth and stability of a society," she said.

Study after study confirms that women are critical to sustainable development. Educating women and protecting their legal rights have been shown in research by the World Bank and others to reduce birth rates and child mortality, improve health and education, build civil society and encourage the development of democracy. Gender equality is one of the UN's eight targets in its Millennium Development Goals, and it considers women's empowerment essential to achieving all of them.

The American Lawyer recognized White & Case with its first Global Citizenship Grand Prize for the Firm’s Fighting Human Trafficking Initiative. The Initiative couples representation of human trafficking victims and support for leading anti-trafficking NGOs with efforts to bring about systemic change in the ways human trafficking cases are prosecuted and the protection countries offer to their domestic workers. Approximately 200 associates and 30 partners from 27 offices have worked on an anti-human trafficking pro bono matter.


Many legal inequities remain

Yet every region of the world includes economies with unequal treatment for men and women. In 2012, the World Bank reported that 128 out of 143 countries imposed legal differences on the basis of gender, and studies strongly suggest there is both a human and economic cost to these differences.

Land ownership is a key example. Many women do not have the right to own land. In many regions, women are evicted from the family's land when their husbands die and left without means to support themselves or their children. But many small-hold farms are run by women, and there is evidence that supporting women farmers may increase farm yields. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, if women farmers were given the same access to seeds, fertilizer and technologies as men, production would increase by 20 to 30 percent, which, in turn, would reduce the number of malnourished people in the world by 100 to 150 million.

Violence against women is rampant, and its economic impact can be staggering, from direct healthcare costs to indirect productivity losses. Analyses of costs associated with domestic violence conducted by government agencies and academics in Australia, Canada, England and Wales, and the United States estimated an annual economic impact ranging from US$1 billion to US$32 billion across these countries.

Unwanted pregnancies—particularly among adolescents, to whom pregnancy also poses serious health risks—are a financial strain on families as well as to public coffers. Educating girls is a critical strategy. Research by the World Bank has shown that increasing the average education level of women by three years can lower their individual birth rate by one child. Millions of girls and women lack access to contraceptives because of high costs, nonexistent or inaccurate sex education, or social stigmas. For example, research in Slovakia by White & Case and the Center for Reproductive Rights found that contraceptives are not covered under public health insurance there because they are seen as "lifestyle drugs."


New tools that matter: Technology and global reach

Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke is the Founder and Managing Director of the Paris-based organization Women's Worldwide Web, or W4, which she calls "a bottom-up, community-driven approach to development." She believes much of the answer to securing women's legal and economic equality lies in technology.

A White & Case pro bono client, W4 raises money via a crowd-funding model for women's programs and women-owned enterprises in both developed and developing countries, and promotes access to mobile and digital technologies. "We really see access to information and communication technologies as a game changer," said Lindsey.

White & Case is involved with several projects leveraging the power of technology to advance human rights. One example is our research for the International Models Project on Women's Rights (IMPOWR), a project established by the American Bar Association that maintains a website on laws and legal reform efforts affecting women's rights around the world.

We really see access to information and communication technologies as a game changer.
Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke, Founder and Managing Director, Women's Worldwide Web

Created in 2008, the IMPOWR website is constantly updated with editable, searchable and comparable information, featuring summaries of gender equality laws, legal reform measures and law enforcement activities in more than 190 countries and on 40 specific topics as they pertain to CEDAW.

"It is a tool not just for lawyers, but for individuals all over the world," said Christina Heid, who oversees the international project initiatives of the ABA Section of International Law. Christina calls firms such as White & Case a "tremendous resource," as the Firm's global network gives it "an innate understanding of the laws in many countries and where to find that information."


Infrastructure: Private sector entrants are raising the bar

TrustLaw Connect is an example of the power of private sector players driving change in human rights. A free legal pro bono clearinghouse introduced in 2010 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, it helps lawyers connect with high-impact projects, entrepreneurs and nongovernmental organizations around the world in need of pro bono legal services. The program has grown to include more than 1,600 member firms and organizations in 150 countries, including White & Case.

Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and founder of TrustLaw, has made women's rights a central focus of the Foundation's programs, with many pro bono projects and TrustWomen, an annual conference, focused exclusively on taking concrete actions to advance women's rights around the world. In 2011, Monique spearheaded the creation of an expert poll establishing the worst countries for women, and, in 2012, the Foundation released another poll ranking the G20 countries for women. The list put Canada at the top on the basis of healthcare access and policies that encourage gender equality, while countries toward the bottom were hindered by their performance on such issues as child marriage and female infanticide. Monique asks, "Don't you think that the countries ranked worst for women by the poll would achieve a lot more if they unlocked the potential of women and women were equal to men?"

There has never been a time in history when women in so many societies have had such a high degree of legal status, political power or economic clout—and that evolution is continuing. Whether this changing landscape heralds a truly global change in the status and treatment of women remains to be seen, but there is powerful momentum from women and men working together across borders in countless ways to advance this dialogue. "Hope" and "outrage" were the two words used by Chile's President-elect Michelle Bachelet to describe the state of women's rights on International Women's Day 2013. Hope, she said, "because awareness and action are rising for women's rights," and outrage, "because women and girls continue to suffer high levels of discrimination, violence and exclusion."


Inclusive finance: Increasing access to financial services

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