More than a billion girls and women lack legal protection against sexual harassment in education and public spaces

A student in lower secondary school open to blind students in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: GPE/Guy Nzazi

A student in lower secondary school open to blind students in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Credit: GPE/Guy Nzazi

Laws are important to provide women with legal protection against domestic violence and sexual harassment and signal commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal target of ending all forms of violence and harmful practices against women and girls by 2030.

Every two years, the World Bank publishes data on these and other laws protecting women from violence as part of its Women, Business and the Law series of reports. The next report and detailed country level data are due to come out in a matter of weeks, but some aggregate results are already available and they are sobering.

More laws on the books, but still not enough protection

A recent note funded in part by the Global Partnership for Education provides an analysis of global and regional trends in legal protection for women against domestic violence and sexual harassment. The analysis relies on data from 2013 to 2017 on binding laws and regulations applicable in 141 countries. While recognizing the often large gap between the law and practice, the comparative assessment of legal protection against domestic violence and sexual harassment is based on the letter of the law and not on the application or enforcement thereof.

A few findings stand out:

• While the share of countries with laws on domestic violence increased over the last four years, comprehensive legal protection remains weak when considering specific types of abuse. Laws covering sexual violence as a form of domestic violence are lacking in more than one in three countries. For economic violence (whereby a male partner restrains a woman’s ability to access economic resources as a form of intimidation and coercion), half of the countries do not have specific legislation. For two in three countries, unmarried intimate partners are not protected under the domestic violence laws.

• As a result, more than one billion women lack legal protection against sexual violence by an intimate partner or family member and close to 1.4 billion lack legal protection against domestic economic violence. In addition, in many countries, even when married women may be protected against domestic violence, women in unmarried intimate relationships may not be protected.

• The share of countries with laws on sexual harassment also increased slightly over the last four years, yet one in five countries does not have specific laws against sexual harassment in employment. The proportion is six in ten countries lacking laws on sexual harassment in education and four in five countries for sexual harassment in public spaces. Criminal penalties for sexual harassment are in place in only two thirds of countries and less than half for sexual harassment in employment.

• As a result, estimates of the number of women lacking legal protection against sexual harassment in employment, education, and public places are at 359 million, 1.5 billion, and 2.2 billion, respectively (for comparability purposes, statistics are based on the population of women aged 15 and above). Estimates are higher when based on the lack of criminal penalties for perpetrators.

Sexual harassment and violence keep girls from school

Especially in the case of education, the lack of appropriate laws, as well as inadequate enforcement when laws do exist, can have dramatic consequences for adolescent girls.

In some areas, the fear for girls to be harassed or assaulted on their way to school or experiencing it in schools is mentioned by parents as one of the reasons why girls drop out of school without completing their secondary education.

The trauma from harassment, and the exclusion that may result from pregnancies outside of marriage in the case of assault, can be devastating for adolescent girls, endangering their whole future and opportunities in life.

In some cases, the fear of sexual harassment and abuse in school may contribute not only to girls dropping out, but also to child marriage, and lead to all the negative consequences that marrying at an early age entail.

While laws against domestic violence and sexual harassment are not sufficient to end these forms of abuse, they are an important step that countries can and should take towards ending violence against women and girls.

Girls' Education


Lead Economist, The World Bank
Quentin Wodon is an Adviser in the World Bank's Education Department where he leads the cluster on equity, resilience, and early childhood development. Previously, he managed the World Bank unit on values...
Private Sector Development Specialist, World Bank
Paula Tavares joined the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law team in 2010 after working on the Investment Climate Department’s Health in Africa Initiative. Ms. Tavares currently focuses on...

Latest blogs

The Asia Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood conference brought together participants to advocate for and plan a multisectoral approach in early childhood through education.
Nepal’s efforts to reduce disparities across the education sector are bearing fruit: in the last year, 24,090 children were enrolled in school.
On World Refugee Day, held each year on June 20, we share facts that remind us on the importance of ensuring that all children, including refugees, have access to education when they need it the most...