Progress of the World’s Women 2011-12: In Pursuit of Justice


Progress of the World’s Women is a triennial report published by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). This second edition, published in August 2011, focuses on the evolution of women’s legal rights over the last several decades.

The scope of women’s legal rights has broadened over the years. Still, the report notes, “…for most of world’s women the laws that exist on paper do not always translate into equality and justice.” It discusses the various obstacles women face in accessing legal and judicial recourse, examining 10 seminal legal cases from around the world such as Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan – which have resulted in considerable progress for women’s rights. The report states, in its recommendations, that a functioning legal and judicial system is essential for enabling women to exercise their rights, and that more women need to be employed across roles in the judicial sector.

The 166-page report is divided into two parts. The first part 'Making Justice Systems Work for Women' consists of an introduction, outlines of the 10 ‘ground breaking’ court cases, and four chapters: Legal Frameworks (Chapter 1); The Justice Chain (Chapter 2); Legal Pluralism and Justice for Women (Chapter 3); and Justice for Women During and After Conflict (Chapter 4). The second part 'Gender Justice and the Millennium Development Goals' enumerates the eight MDGs – adopted by the United Nations in 2000, and to be achieved by 2015 – followed by recommendations to enhance justice systems.


  1. In the year 1911, only two countries in the world permitted women to vote. A century later, the right is almost ubiquitous. The intervening years have seen women’s political rights steadily increase, with 19 women elected as heads of State as of 2011, and 28 countries having 30 per cent or more women in parliament. Women's political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights have become more widely recognised in the past century.

  2. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty promoting women’s rights, has been ratified by 186 members of the United Nations, including India – states the 2011 report. The treaty signals countries’ commitment to “fulfilling the human rights of women and girls and breaking down the barriers to achieving gender equality and justice.”

  3. The report notes that there has been considerable legal reform over the previous 30 years which has resulted in 139 constitutions guaranteeing gender equality, 125 countries outlawing domestic violence, around 117 drafting equal pay laws, 173 guaranteeing paid maternity leave and 117 outlawing workplace sexual harassment. Women’s property and inheritance rights are guaranteed by 115 and 93 countries respectively.

  4. Despite the progress, women’s rights are often found to be most vulnerable in the private and economic spheres, which includes the right to live free from violence; to make decisions about one’s sexuality, marriage, divorce and reproductive health; to decent work; and to inherit and control land and other productive resources.

  5. Citing the 2010 World Bank publication Women, Business and the Law Database, the report notes that certain industries – mostly those involving heavy lifting or arduous work – prohibit the employment of women in more than a third of the world’s countries. In 13 countries, the law requires women to retire at a younger age than men.

  6. Around 53 per cent of women workers across the world and more than 80 per cent in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are employed in ‘vulnerable’ jobs, as own-account workers or unpaid workers in family businesses or farms the report cites from the 2009 International Labour Organization publication, Global Employment Trends for Women. The protection of the rights of women engaged in such informal work is crucial.

  7. The report stresses the need for legal reform that fulfils the three aims of: ‘Ending explicit legal discrimination against women’, ‘Extending the protection of the rule of law’ and ‘Ensuring government responsibility for the impact of the law’.

  8. The justice chain is defined as a “series of steps that must be taken to access justice through the formal state system.” The report states that the chain is characterised by high levels of attrition, which is a particular problem in rape cases. The majority of cases drop out of the justice system prior to appearing before the court, and very few cases result in convictions.

  9. The protection of women’s rights is challenged by the existence of legal pluralism ­­­– “multiple strands of law based on custom, ethnic or religious identity incorporated into the state system, as well as a plethora of non-state justice systems, such as village courts.” These exist outside the purview of State authorities and present a gap within the government’s responsibility to ensure justice for women.

  10. International law, over the last few decades, has for the first time recognised the gendered outcomes of conflicts. The report states that more women than men endure abuses like abduction, displacement, rape and sexual slavery, in conflict zones.

  11. The report suggests supporting women’s legal organisations and one-stop shops (medical and legal aid centres providing integrated services). It also recommends implementing gender-sensitive reforms and increasing the number of women legislators and law enforcement personnel.

    Focus and factoids by Bristhy Bhandary.


UN Women


UN Women


Aug, 2011