Protesters gather Nov. 7 to demand justice after a gang rape in Bhopal, India, on Nov. 7, 2017. (Sanjeev Gupta/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The theme for this year’s United Nations Day of the Girl, “With Her: A Skilled GirlForce,” marks the start of a year-long effort to forge new partnerships to prepare girls for a successful transition into the world of work.

In many countries, women’s economic opportunities are impeded by inadequate protections related to parental leave, gender-based violence prevention and reproductive rights. Why do we need gender equality laws? Gender equality laws provide formal mechanisms to eliminate discriminatory practices aimed at undermining the health and rights of women and girls. Here are three examples of how laws to protect women and girls also can enhance their economic opportunities.

1. Parental leave laws can lead to greater gender equality

Around the world, women do the bulk of unpaid work at home, including child care, which limits their economic opportunities outside of the home. In fact, women do 2.6 times as much unpaid work at home as men. In countries where employment is largely in the formal sector and can be effectively regulated, parental leave laws can help shift these norms.

Parental leave laws can be designed in ways to encourage takeup by men, and avert discrimination by employers who hire men to avoid maternity leave. Sweden’s Parental Leave Act, established in 1974, was the first to provide mothers and fathers time off to be with their children — and is still heralded as the most successful policy on this front. Parents can take almost 500 days off for each child until the child is 8 — 90 days are assigned exclusively to the father — with the option to split the rest of the days between parents. Parents earn 80 percent of their salary for the first 390 days of the allotted 480 days — with a cap on high salaries.

Here’s what the data show, four decades later: An estimated 9 out of 10 Swedish mothers return to work post-childbirth, and women 30 or older work at much higher rates in Sweden, compared with other developed countries, including the United States. And for each month of parental leave taken by the father, a Swedish woman’s earnings rose 6.7 percent.

Long paternal leave time is also associated with increased child-care responsibilities (such as fathers staying home with a sick child) and better parent-child relationships (such as children being more likely to seek out fathers for comfort when needed). Sweden illustrates the ways in which innovations in how we structure parental leave can improve gender equality at home and in the workplace.

2. Rape laws lead to an increase in rape complaints — but not convictions

What about rape laws? Rape has profound economic effects on survivors and can result in time off work, diminished performance and, ultimately, job loss. Seven percent of women globally have experienced nonmarital sexual violence or rape, and sexual violence in marriage is probably even higher.

Laws can play an important symbolic role, indicating that such behavior is socially unacceptable, yet a recent multicountry analysis of sexual assault and rape laws indicates that legal protections against this form of violence remains woefully inadequate in many countries, including India.

In the past five years, India has adopted several new rape laws amid media and public scrutiny following a high-profile fatal rape of a woman in Delhi. These laws decree that minors are unable to consent to sex, define rape as an offense punishable by imprisonment for at least seven years, and remove the need for police investigation or approval before arrest.

National data suggest a 39 percent increase in the willingness of survivors to report rape, comparing 2012 to 2015. Comparing 2007 and 2016, the change is more dramatic, with an 88 percent increase in reported rape cases.

But the new laws may not provide adequate support for victims. Rape convictions in India declined 35 percent from 2007 to 2016, with 2016 being a historic low in the rape conviction rate: 18.9 percent. Poor coordination efforts between investigating officers and public prosecutors is one reason for the lack of rape convictions — which suggests these laws do not adequately protect women and girls.

3. Abortion access leads to downtrend shift in maternal mortality

In the United States, new research documents how access to abortion services facilitates women’s participation in the labor force. In Nepal, where abortion was illegal until recently, there is data to show how abortion access can improve maternal health outcomes, but also illustrate the difficulty of translating law into practice.

At the start of the 21st century, abortion was illegal and punishable by imprisonment in Nepal, where maternal mortality rates were among the highest in the region. In 2002, as part of efforts to improve maternal health, the government allowed women who are up to 12 weeks pregnant (and longer, in some instances) to obtain abortions. In the landmark 2009 case Lakshmi Dhikta vs. Nepal, the Nepalese high court held that abortion is a fundamental human right and that the Nepalese government is responsible for ensuring abortion services are affordable and accessible to all women.

Access to safe and legal abortion in Nepal helped reduce maternal mortality by about 53 percent from 2000 to 2015. But an estimated 2 in 5 women of reproductive age in Nepal are unaware that abortion is legal, and abortions performed by uncertified providers account for about 60 percent of abortions. Less than 2 percent of sampled facilities in Nepal meet abortion service readiness standards, which suggests that legalization of abortion is one step — and investing in quality of care and patient access is a second important step.

Where do we go from here?

Women remain less than 40 percent of the global labor force, with many countries showing stagnating or declining participation of women in the labor force. Laws addressing barriers to women’s economic opportunities can help shift these patterns.

However, laws are only as useful as far as implementation and norm shifts allow. Multipronged approaches, inclusive of laws, are needed to improve girls’ transition from education to employment and women’s participation in the global labor force.

Rupa Jose, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar in the Center on Gender Equity and Health in the department of medicine at the University of California at San Diego. 

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

Anita Raj, PhD, is a Tata Chancellor Professor of Medicine, the director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health in the department of medicine, and a professor of education studies at the University of California at San Diego.