The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This chart shows the best and worst countries for women in the world today.

Women shout slogans as they take part in the #IWillGoOut rally, to show solidarity with the Women’s March in Washington, along a street in Bengaluru, India, on Jan. 21, 2017. (REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa)

What is women’s status in the world today? The recent revelations of abuse by Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly are stark reminders of the universality of the challenges, even in countries where the discrimination is not as blatant as Saudi Arabia, where women are required by law to obey their husbands, or Nigeria, where girls who dared to go to school have been abducted and forced to become suicide bombers. Of course, there is enormous variation across countries and contexts, indeed so much variation that it can be hard to measure simply.

Several existing global indices have attempted to measure that status, including those published by the Human Development Report and the World Economic Forum. The goal is to distill a complex array of information into a single number and ranking.  Recent research has shown that such “scorecard diplomacy” can motivate change.

But most gender indices are limited, our research found. They measure a few simple facts, such as what percentage of a nation’s women finish school or are employed for pay. They leave out critical aspects of girls’ and women’s lives, such as whether they are safe and secure in their homes or communities, or face systematic bias and discrimination in the justice system or in daily custom.

To fill that gap, the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo launched the global Women, Peace, and Security Index. This new index measures women’s well-being by assessing their inclusion, justice and security in a single number and ranking. It’s the first gender index framed explicitly by the Sustainable Development and Sustaining Peace Agendas.

How do we measure inclusion, justice, and security?

  • Inclusion involves enabling women to make their own economic, social and political decisions. This can be captured through such indicators as women’s employment, access to cell phones (essential in many parts of the world for financial independence), and seats in parliament.
  • Justice is incomplete unless recognized in formal laws and everyday customs. We drew on the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law, which measures differences in how women and men are treated under the law. To assess informal discrimination, we used the share of men who do not think it is acceptable for women to work outside the home, and the imbalance in the sex ratio at birth, known as son bias.
  • Security is measured within the family, in the community and in society at large.

To get an objective measure of women’s lives in 153 countries covering more than 98 percent of the world’s population, we’ve used transparent and reliable data from the United Nations, the World Bank and the Gallup World Poll. We do not rely on subjective or expert judgments. We group the results by region, for developed countries, and call out the Fragile States group, as defined by the World Bank.

Which countries are best, and worst, for women?

In our first edition, Iceland leads the world, while Afghanistan and Syria are tied for last place, at 153. The top and bottom dozen country rankings are shown in the figure below.

What else did we learn, behind the overall rankings?

1. There is some troubling variation in performance.

Only about 30 countries score in the top third for all three dimensions. That means that when we look behind the ranking, we often find trouble spots.

For example, the United States ranks 22nd overall, and is on par with other top-ranking countries on inclusion and justice. But American women aren’t as safe from intimate partners as in other developed nations. The U.S. security ranking thus suffers from high rates of intimate partner violence — which is more than 10 percentage points above the mean for developed countries.

Or take a look at the United Arab Emirates. The wealthy gulf nation is in the top third of countries on the WPS Index globally, at rank 42. But under UAE law, women’s lives are quite constricted, required to obey their husbands and unable to do the same jobs as men.

Similarly, South Africa ranks second, behind Namibia, in sub-Saharan Africa. Women there average more than a decade of education and are well represented in parliament. But street violence there is troubling. Fewer than 3 out of 10 women feel safe walking at night in the neighborhood, compared with a regional average of 50 percent.

2. Women’s status differs dramatically among nations in the same region.

Some regions perform better and others worse – but some countries in each region shine, while others lag. In every region, at least one country outperforms the global average of .662. In South Asia, that’s Nepal, scoring .672, much better than the regional average of .635. In sub-Saharan Africa, Namibia, South Africa, Mauritius, Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe all beat the global and regional average. And in Latin America and the Caribbean, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Argentina, Chile and Brazil all beat the global average.

The good news is that regional high performers could be benchmarks for their neighbors, revealing a standard that surrounding countries could feasibly reach.

3. In many countries, despite progress, women still face many serious barriers to justice and security

As noted above, discriminatory norms are measured in terms of the share of men who do not accept that women can work outside the home, as reported by the Gallup World Poll. The variation is dramatic from one region to the next, and across nations.  In the Middle East and North Africa, 37 percent don’t want women working outside the home; and in South Asia, it’s one-third of men. A number of countries have even higher disapproval rates. In Pakistan, 73 percent of men disapprove, and in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and Yemen, more than half of men disapprove.

On the other hand, in most developed countries – and in Botswana, Colombia, Ghana, Latvia and Venezuela – that disapproval rate is down in the single digits.

4. Money isn’t everything.

A nation’s per capita income doesn’t necessarily predict women’s status. Comparing national rankings in the WPS Index against their per capita income ranking reveals that many countries do far better on the WPS Index — or far worse — than their per capita income rank. Saudi Arabia plummets 89 places on the WPS Index relative to its income ranking, Kuwait drops 79 places and Iran falls 57 places.

The Women Peace and Security Index is designed to inform and inspire action by governments, multilateral agencies, development partners, civil society and business. Our hope is that the index will help to hold governments to account for their SDG and other global commitments.

Jeni Klugman is managing director of the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security and a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard University.