Yesterday, we celebrated Women’s Equality Day in the United States. Established in 1971 by Congress to honor the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote, the holiday is celebrated on August 26 every year.
It serves as both a celebration and a time to reflect on our past. It is important to honor and remember those who endured violence, threats, social ostracism and brutal imprisonment to fight for a true democracy — one where all people have a vote, regardless of gender.
We honor those who fought and continue to fight around the world for women’s equality. Women’s Equality Day is a U.S. celebration — but as Global Public Affairs practitioners, we find it appropriate to reflect on policies influencing women’s equality around the globe. At 99 years since the U.S. ratified the 19th amendment, we honor this moment by highlighting 19 pieces of legislation from around the world that have gone into effect during those years.
We encourage you to look into acts of interest below and further research the history to honor the sacrifices made for the rights you may exercise today.
Table of Contents
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#1: The Voting Rights Act | United States | 1965 + 1975
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its 1975 amendment, was of pivotal importance to women’s rights in America because it was the final of four additional acts that women of color needed in order to utilize their 19th amendment right to vote.
Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention, it took 72 years of constant pressure, activism and organization, of women across the country for men to grant women the legal right to vote in 1920 with the 19th amendment, yet women of color faced 55 additional years of campaigning in order to lift the barriers to their voting booth access.
The four acts lifted barriers for: Native American women (1924 Indian Citizenship Act), Asian American women (1952 Immigration and Nationality Act & 1943 Magnuson Act), African American women (1964 Voting Rights Act) and Latin American women (1975 Voting Rights Act amendment). The Voting Rights Act and its subsequent amendments were the last of voting rights laws necessary to secure voting rights for all women in the U.S. — which they have had for only a total of 44 years.
It is important to note that it was not the ‘first’ time women had the right to vote in the lands of America. The six Haudenosaunee nations of the Iroquois Confederacy founded in 909, are just one of many examples of native nations that celebrated an equal division of power between the sexes.
According to Sally Roesch Wagner, “While women in the United States are celebrating 100 years of constitutionally guaranteed voting, Native Nation women have had political voice on this land for over 1,000 years. Indigenous women of numerous Native Nations had more rights, sovereignty and integrity long before Europeans arrived on these shores…”
It was in fact exposure to, and living alongside, the Iroquois Nation that highly influenced the founders of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She wrote heavily about the Native Nation and later became one of the primary writers of the early women’s rights movement and core organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention.
Many of today’s countries and lands were once inhabited by ancestors of egalitarian societies. As Hannah Devlin of The Guardian notes, these “findings challenge the idea that sexual equality is a recent invention, suggesting that it has been the norm for humans for most of our evolutionary history.”
The degree of autonomy women held in many indigenous communities around the world highly influenced historical suffrage movements. There is a growing trend to re-discover and increase inclusion of these stories that are vital to our understanding of the battle for women’s equality worldwide.
Cultures and societies of our past that were matrilineal, matriarchal, or held equal value between women and men’s social, economic and political contributions, are referred to as ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilized’ in our history books, anthropological analyses and media coverage. This is because a patrilineal system was considered the main indicator of a ‘civilized’ society. During the rise of eugenics, the ability to control lineage required a patriarchal system, so anything outside of that was considered ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage.’
When we say things such as the ‘first time women could legally vote’ — it gives the false idea that it’s the first time in global history through time and culture that women have ever had a voice in politics, which we know isn’t true. Addressing this bias is not intended to shame, but rather an attempt to shift the narrative to foster a more well-rounded understanding of women’s equality historically and in present-day around the world.
If we dig deeper, we will see the U.S. suffrage movement was not the first time politically inclusive indigenous communities influenced women’s suffrage.
#2: Commonwealth Electoral Act | Australia | 1962
Australia and New Zealand were progressive democratic nations at the turn of the 20th century. New Zealand is often considered the first modern-day democratic country where men granted women the right to vote in 1893, and Australia was the next to follow in 1902.
Similar to the Voting Rights Act in the U.S., The Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1962 in Australia was the additional act needed to give all women the right to vote, including Aboriginal Australian women and men in 1962.
As stated earlier, history is always more complex than simple dates in a timeline. For New Zealand, Māori women were supporting two suffrage movements at once. One for the right to vote in the New Zealand House of Representatives, as well as in the Māori Parliament, where they had women representation as far back as 1852. The Municipal Corporations Act gave both indigenous women and men the right to vote and run for office in 1867.
Indigenous women in South Australia could similarly vote prior to the Commonwealth Franchise Act in 1902 , which stripped many indigenous peoples of their right to vote and ended the Māori Parliament while granting voting rights to European women.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia have a rich history — spanning cultures speaking 200+ languages. We cannot speak individually to each communities’ way of life or contribution to women’s suffrage, but it is important to note that many of them fought alongside European women during these movements in the 1850s.
The indigenous people of Australia lost their vote in 1902 and fought hard in the 1940s to gain back their voting rights state by state until 90 percent of Australians and all six states voted in favor of Aboriginal suffrage in 1962.
Across societies and cultures, the battle for both racial and gender equality often goes hand in hand, as the right to vote and be recognized as an equal citizen in the eyes of the law is the first step toward achieving equality.
#3: Sex Discrimination Act | UK | 1975
In 1918, men granted women conditional voting rights, and women campaigned until 1928 for men to allow them full voting rights. Furthering equality in the UK meant addressing gender and marital discrimination in work, training and education, which was the premise of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act.
Additional amendments made discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status and gender reassignment illegal in later years with the controversial Protection from Harassment Act in 1997 and The Gender Recognition Act in 2004. With amendments, the law specifies legal repercussions for discrimination based on gender assignment or reassignment.
Many laws have followed that address unequal pay, gender recognition, employment, including the Equality Act of 2010.
Freedom from harassment at work is essential, but according to UCLA’s World Policy Analysis Center, more than one-third of the world’s countries do not have laws prohibiting sexual harassment at work, “leaving nearly 235 million working women without this important protection.”
#4: The Equal Employment Opportunity Law | Japan | 1986
Post-war reforms in Japan included the right to vote in 1946, access to education and laws addressing pay discrimination, but further enhanced equality laws with the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1986.
The full title is called the Ordinance for the Enforcement of the Act on Ensuring Equal Opportunities for and Treatment of Men and Women in Employment (雇用の分野における男女の均等な機会及び待遇の確保 等に関する法律施行規則) and is essentially a labor law requiring that previous equal opportunity employment acts are being implemented for women, while introducing amendments to both the Women’s Welfare law and the Labor Standards Act of 1947.
The act requires employers to give women up to one year of time off after childbirth to be able to heal and allow a transition before returning to work. One clause makes companies responsible for women working night shift, required to take measures to ensuring their safety when commuting.
Since the release of the law it has been revised twice to include discrimination laws as it pertains to promotion, hiring and sexual harassment, holding employers accountable.
#5: The Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests | China | 1992 + 2005
The law established in 1992 China specifies it is a government’s responsibility to “pay great attention and strengthen the protection of women’s right and interests.” It was formulated to protect women’s lawful rights and interests, so they can live in economic, political, cultural and social equality with men. It encourages women to use the law to protect themselves from injustice based on gender discrimination. It clearly states that women shall enjoy equal rights with men in “all aspects of political, economic, cultural, social and family life.” In addition, the law specifies that “the state shall implement the policy of equality between men and women as a basic national policy. The state shall take necessary measures and gradually improve the various systems to protect women’s rights and interests.”
The law was designed to cultivate a sense of self-respect, confidence and strength among women, equipping them with the legal tools to safeguard and protect their lawful rights. Likewise, the law explicitly states its intent to foster an environment where women feel empowered to mandate that the rights they have on paper are fulfilled in their daily lives.
#6: Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act | South Africa | 1996
Following the end of apartheid in South Africa, methods to protect human rights and equality included an essential act that outlines necessary steps to change and eradicate social and economic inequalities, “especially those that are systemic in nature…generated in our history by colonialism, apartheid and patriarchy.”
This act overtly addressed how race and ability affect gender equality, and directly confronted South Africa’s colonialist and patriarchal past. In addition, the law made hate speech on the basis of gender illegal.
South Africa is not the first to take measures against hate speech. The German criminal code explicitly outlaws hate speech (Volksverhetzung) defined as disruption of peace that “incites hatred against a national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins, against segments of the population or individuals because of their belonging to one of the aforementioned groups.”
France has also made hate speech illegal, and is currently debating a bill to stop online hate speech, which critics argue is starting to sound too much like censorship.
Whether one believes it is the government’s duty, or personal duty, to address hate speech, we cannot deny that hate speech has real-world consequences. Throughout history, hate speech has been a vital tool used by leaders who planned mass killings and genocides to disseminate “ideologies of hatred to spur their followers to act, cow bystanders into passivity and to justify their crimes.”
When used against women, hate speech can increase the likelihood that a hate-crime against women will be committed, according to the results of Sweden’s Agency for Youth and Civil Society’s 2015 Youth Survey. It showed that young men who agree with stereotypical, or discriminatory statements exhibit 4.4 times more violent behavior.
Gender-based hate speech can evolve into gender-based hate crime. Unfortunately, no country legally recognizes violence against women as a hate crime, despite organized and systematic violence directly targeted at women simply because they are women. According to the World Health Organization, almost one-third of women have experienced intimate partner violence or sexual assault globally.
Advocates for the inclusion of violence against women in the hate crime category point out that violent crimes against women are often “devoid of any criminal motive and are excessively violent,” similar to racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes. Yet, legal entities who track hate crimes do so on the basis of race, nationality, sexual orientation, religious affiliation and ability, but rarely do so on the basis of gender.
The South African law, however, takes the first step towards inclusion by explicitly stating that it will provide measures to facilitate the eradication of unfair discrimination, hate speech and harassment, particularly on the grounds of race, gender and disability.
The unique prohibition of hate speech on the basis of gender is a big step toward addressing gender-based inequities — whether or not one finds it to be the government’s job to address hate speech.
#7: Political Representation Law | Rwanda | 2003
Of all the countries in the world, Rwanda has the highest percentage of women representation in their Parliament at 61 percent of the lower chamber and 38 percent of the upper chamber. The increased inclusion of women in the government and workforce was both a result and solution to a violent past.
Rwanda faced a genocide in 1994 with a death toll between 800,000 and 1 million. By the end, the country’s population dynamics had shifted to be almost 70 percent women. After the genocide their society underwent a lot of change including women strongly stepping into the workforce.
Following this violent history, President Paul Kagame felt it was vital to have women in government, mandating a 30 percent representation law in the 2003 Rwanda Constitution. After such atrocities, he led the charge in changing political dynamics and public life to emphasize the importance of having balanced leadership — with a higher percentage of women representation from the police force to the government.
In the 2003 elections, they surpassed the 30 percent requirement, electing 43 percent women into their Parliament. By the next election, 64 percent of their parliament was made up by women.
#8: The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act | India | 2005
According to the World Health Organization, one in three women around the world face domestic violence or sexual assault. Destabilization of safety in a home adversely affects one’s mental health, well-being, confidence, and physical health which directly impacts one third of women’s ability to compete in the workforce, educational institutions, and government.
According to the CDC, the estimated cost of absenteeism, productivity loss, health costs from partner physical assault and stalking, costs $5.8 billion dollars each year. There is not a direct equivalent study in India — but with a population three times the size of the United States, it is fair to say the physical, emotional and economic loss caused by domestic violence is negatively impacting their productivity on a large scale.
Women in India fought this issue head-on to be able to file protection orders against physical and emotional abuse within the home. Often a complex form of violence to address in any nation, the protection is now guaranteed under their constitution. The law addresses not just physical violence, but emotional, verbal, sexual and economic abuse.
#9: Board Membership Law | Norway | 2008
Protecting women’s rights improves countries not just morally and socially — but economically. Knowing the extensive economic, social and cultural benefits of diversity in business, Norway has decided to diversify their workforce by mandate. They require that women hold at least 40 percent of director seats on public company boards.
This law could be considered a ‘gateway policy’ to equality laws in public business because many countries directly followed suit with similar laws including: Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy — some of which have clauses where companies can be fined or prohibited from paying current leadership if the guidelines are not met.
#10: Prostitution Reform Act | New Zealand | 2003
New Zealand seemed to be at the front of the line when it came to women’s suffrage. This next law is considered controversial to many, but it has none the less been created as a way to begin to find solutions to minimize harm to sex workers, who are predominantly women. The Prostitution Reform Act includes decriminalization and rights to be free from sex discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
#11: Treaty of Lisbon | EU | 2009
The EU Treaty of Lisbon provides a legal basis to fight discrimination against women in all member states within the European Union. As women progress further and their participation in government and public life increases, so do their expectations for equal opportunity. Article 10 TFEU specifies that “in defining and implementing its policies and activities, the Union shall aim to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.“
This treaty is legally binding, and interestingly includes clauses that guarantee women and men parental leave — leaving only four countries in the world to be without legally mandated paid parental leave.
Parental leave laws are vital to equality for women and increase the quality of life for everyone regardless of gender. Despite the EU mandates for parental leave, many mothers are still subject to the “Mommy tax.” This is considered the price that women pay for the wage gap that increases exponentially if they are to have children. Analyzing parental leave policy is a vital way to address this leading cause of economic inequality.
The treaty of Lisbon aims to address this by ensuring men the right to parental leave.As we’ll see in the next piece of legislation, its highly effective when men do take that leave
#12: Paternity Leave Laws: Double Days Reform | Sweden | 2012
While it is important to fight for the inclusion of women in male-dominated spaces, such as government, tech and STEM — it is not possible to achieve economic equality if we are not also fighting for the inclusion of men in women-dominated spaces.
To close the wage gap, the time women spend on free labor needs to be addressed or the compensation for childcare and domestic work needs to begin.
Worldwide, women perform 2.6 times the amount of free domestic labor as men, equating to almost four hours more per day of uncompensated work. The inequity is damaging women’s ability to compete with men on equal footing.
On a positive note, there are effective solutions: Companies that implement a mandatory parental leave policy for both men and women have helped to close the wage gap. In Sweden, the laws for parental leave require fathers to take at least two months off before the child is 8 years old in order to receive government benefits.
The most interesting part about this policy is that when fathers do this — mothers see a rise in income averaging 7 percent for each month of paternity leave taken by the father, according to the Institute For Labour Market Party Evaluation. It has been shown that this policy leads to better mental health for mothers including a significantly lower need for post-birth medical care and a 29 percent decrease in need of post-partum anxiety medication.
#13: Gender Identity Law | Argentina | 2012
Argentina has gained a reputation as a pioneer for transgender rights. In 2012, they passed legislation granting rights for gender identity recognition without a psychological referral. The law explicitly states that transgender individuals are to “be treated according to their gender identity and, particularly, to be identified in that way in the documents proving their identity in terms of the first name/s, image and sex recorded there.”
Argentina makes the case that an individual has the right to be called and identified in the way of their choosing, solely by self-determination. The law goes further to say that sex-change surgery is a right, so it is to be covered by both public and private insurance.
The urgent need for these laws was evident due to the immense discrimination and violence against transgender individuals in Argentina that arose in the 1980s and 1990s. Activists in Argentina fought until cisgender people granted them their full rights.
This is not, however, the ‘first time’ transgender individuals exercised rights as valuable contributors to society on these lands. Similar to pre-colonial America and Australia, the indigenous people who inhabited the lands, including the Selk’nam and Yámana tribes, were largely matrilineal. These tribes in particular were matriarchal, where women lead men and there was a reverence for the power of nature and women’s connection to it.
In addition, the Mapuche culture of Argentina and Chile generally chose women to be their shamans and spiritual leaders, called Machis. In their spiritual ceremonies, gender was considered fluid — not determined by sex. This concept was not only accepted, but embraced as part of their spirituality. Plants and animals all had an assigned gender based on levels of masculine and feminine attributes — but people were considered a balance between four identities: the man, the woman, the young woman and young man. If an individual became sick or diseased, it was thought to be due to an imbalance between the masculine and feminine attributes — whether the individual was born male, female or intersex.
The concept that an imbalance between masculine and feminine energies causes sickness or disease is not uncommon, as it is also referenced in Chinese medicine as the balance between Yin and Yang, or the balance of Shiv and Shakti in Hinduism.
Many societies throughout history, like the Mapuche, believed in a third gender, multiple genders, or gender fluidity, rejecting the myth that all societies throughout time have had only a binary system. It is hard to determine if Argentina’s ancient views have influenced their current policies and social stance to protect transgender individuals, but it is worth noting.
#14: Gender Quota Law for Legislative Candidates | Mexico | 2014
Similar to Rwanda, Mexico has decided to mandate inclusion of women in politics. However, Mexico’s 2014 law does not guarantee women will occupy a set percentage of their Parliament; it simply guarantees them a spot in the race. The new law requires all political parties ensure 50 percent women candidates.
Just four years after Mexico passed their gender parity law, 42.5 percent of the lower house of Congress was made up of women. These quotas not only increase the number of female candidates, but also the investment in economic and social empowerment. In order to cultivate a candidate pipeline that is 50 percent women, Mexico must integrate women in profound ways — not just to fill quotas.
#15: End to the Tampon Tax | Canada | 2016
Menstrual products are taxed as luxury items in most countries. Often, they are taxed higher than books, art and sometimes even caviar. The discrepancy was addressed in this campaign that sold tampons in books as a way to get around the 19 percent tampon tax in Germany.
To some, this may seem like a minuscule issue — or even invisible to those who do not get a period. But globally, lack of access to menstrual hygiene products is a significant contributor to lack of access to education for women, women’s poverty rates and exclusion from the workforce around the world.
Nancy Kramer, founder of Free the Tampon says, “The consequences of not having access to menstrual products are pretty humiliating, and really a loss of dignity.”
For women who can afford the products, they still pay what has been coined as the Pink Tax- higher prices on products made for women, including higher taxes on feminine products. According to the Ax the Pink Tax calculator, a woman born in 1960 is now down over $80,000 in her lifetime and women pay an extra $1,300 per yearjust for being born a woman- putting them at a large disadvantage.
Canada took an important stance on this issue in 2016 and decided to eliminate its 5 percent tax on tampons and menstrual products.
#16: Wage Transparency Act | Germany | 2018
Despite the many measures taken in the EU towards gender equity, including the treaty of Lisbon and Germany’s parental leave policies, a gender pay gap still exists. After ruling out factors such as chosen professions, experience and education level, Germany was still seeing discrepancies in pay at a level of 16.3 percent. They decided to address this gap by mandating transparency.
In January 2018, the Wage Transparency Act went into effect and obligates any company with over 200 employees to disclose the median salary of their workers. While the law will not allow you to discover the exact salary of an individual colleague, women will be able to see the median pay of colleagues of the opposite sex who have their same role within a company to determine if they are being fairly compensated.
This holds companies accountable for unequal pay and informs employees of gender-based discrimination. Women need to know if they are being underpaid if they are to flag pay discrimination, and this law is a step to solving that issue.
#17: Freedom to Choose a Professional Future Law | France | 2018
France made a similar effort to address the gender pay gap in 2018, obligating employers to promote “professional equality between men and women in the workplace, including the introduction and publication of specific pay gap indicators and penalties for failure to address pay inequality.”
While the Social and Economic Committee already had a set of obligations for companies in the Labor Code for gender equality and renegotiations with the state’s unions, France still experiences a wage gap of 24 percent overall and 9 percent for equivalent working positions.
The law obligates companies with over 50 employees to disclose measured gaps and fix them within three years. In addition, the policy takes a harsher stance on gender-based violence in the workforce.
According to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2019 report, France is one of only six countries in the world to fully protect and ensure gender equality legally in the workplace. While we know that laws on paper do not ensure equality in real life, it is still an essential step to be fighting discrimination in the workplace.
#18: Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act | Pakistan | 2018
Not unlike Argentina, Pakistan has made a new law to protect transgender rights. The Protection of Rights Act instated in 2018 explicitly states that “a Transgender Person shall have a right to be recognized as per his or her self-perceived gender identity” and “shall be allowed to change the name and gender according to his or her self-perceived identity.”
This is an important first step in transgender equality because access to IDs, passports and driver’s licenses with one’s true identity not only allows for a practical right to freedom of movement, but also gives legal validation needed to address transgender discrimination.
The law extends to the whole of Pakistan and includes explicit prohibition of discrimination based on gender, including unfair treatment in the workplace, at school or in public. It was enacted after nine years of concerted effort in Pakistan’s justice system by transgender activists.
#19: Equal Pay Law | Iceland | 2018
We have seen many countries making strides to close the wage gap through transparency and reporting. However, Iceland has taken it to the next level by passing a law in 2018 making it outright illegal to pay women less than men for the same job. Companies with more than 25 employees are required to prove that their wages are fair to receive certification.
The World Economic Forum has rated Iceland as number one for Gender Equality for many years; yet, to their surprise, a gender pay gap still exists in the country. While many other countries outlaw discrimination in the workplace, Iceland is the first country to legally enforce equal pay directly, as many claim that equality won’t happen by itself.
As we have seen in American, Australian and Argentinian indigenous cultures, Iceland too has a history that includes equality between women and men that contributes to the cultural reputation of ‘strong women.’ “Women enjoyed certain liberties and had cultural and religious authority during the commonwealth period that lingered on throughout the ages. On the religious front, diversity was embraced in the “pre-modern”, pagan society. There were gods and goddesses, as well as women and men serving as cultural and religious authorities. Women were priestesses and oracles, poets and rune masters, merchants and medicine doctors, enjoying respect in society.”
It was only within the past 1,000 years that women began to be excluded from governmental, religious and public affairs, which they had to win back by fighting for their rights in the early 1900s.
The fight for equality affects us all, and the pathway there is never simple. While legislation is vital to protecting individual rights wherever we may live — no matter what law is on the books — inequality can still occur in our daily lives in mundane, everyday interactions. In the exclusion of stories from history classes. In the assumptions one may make about a colleague. In the stereotypical expectations one may have of their partner in the home.
Equality begins with a thirst for knowledge, a mindset and an attitude to maintain the rights previous generations have fought hard to obtain. And as you can see, it’s not because one may have rights and freedoms in a time and place — that they are guaranteed to remain.
Rights are fragile and easily lost if they are not respected, defended and believed in. To defend those rights means to see others as equally human as yourself, no matter who they are. That you continue to fight for your right to be seen as equally human — no matter who you are.
Co-authored by Lexi Mondot | Edited by Emily Vander Weele, Michelle Byamugisha and Katie Wright
Want to work with us? For inquiries and information about our expertise in public affairs, please reach out to Ellen DeMunter: EDeMunter@webershandwick.com.
Please note: this list is not an endorsement of any country’s practices or culture. No country is free of discrimination and this is not a ranking or opinion on a country’s commitment to equality. This list is meant to inspire you to broaden your knowledge of the diverse approaches to solving gender equity issues through policy.
Disclaimer: Please also note that ‘woman’ refers to all woman-identifying people throughout this article and is meant to be inclusive to those outside of the binary system. Historically, systems that restrict legal equality for women, often weaponized the binary system to also oppress those who do not fall neatly within those predetermined categories. This is a summary of policies written with the intention of addressing gender-based inequality even though some historical policies did not explicitly address genders outside of the binary at the time they were written.
To read this article on Weber Shandwick’s Issues Decoded blog, click here.