10 of the worst countries for women’s rights

August 15, 2022
Photo by Charlotte Woellwarth

Compiling data from Georgetown University’s Women, Peace and Security Index and United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index, we look at ten of the worst countries for women’s rights where Concern is currently working.

Amid the ongoing #MeToo movement, debates around the gender pay gap and gender equality within the workplace (especially at the leadership level), women’s reproductive health and the so-called Pink Tax, it’s clear that gender has become a central lens through which we view our everyday lives, and a benchmark for us to measure the equity of our world. 

We’re also faced with reminders of the gender inequalities that persist around the world, both the obvious — such as gender-based violence — and the more subtle norms and beliefs that fuel generations of imbalance. The Women, Peace and Security Index (copublished by Georgetown University and Oslo’s Peace Research Institute) measures women’s rights through levels of inclusion in society, representation in the justice system, and feelings of security (at home, in their community, and within conflict settings). The United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index touches on similar data points, such as the number of years of education a woman receives and women’s representation at the political level, as well as areas like maternal mortality, early marriage, and teen pregnancy. 

Using these two sets of data, we’ve compiled ten of the worst countries for women’s rights. We also detail some of the issues unique to each context. Concern is working to address these issues through our work in each country. 

Stand with Concern for gender equality in each of the 24 countries where we work

10. Pakistan

There’s some debate between the 2021 WPS Index and the 2020 UN Gender Inequality Index as to Pakistan’s place when it comes to women’s rights. The latter ranks the country 135th out of 162. It’s not a clean bill of health, but also not one of the top ten or even top 25 worst countries for women’s rights. But Women, Peace, and Society Index ranks Pakistan country as 167th out of 170, citing:

  • Low levels of financial inclusion for women (7%)
  • Just under four years of schooling for women
  • An employment rate of just over 21% for women
  • A largely discriminatory set of social norms and legal frameworks, and high incidences of intimate partner violence

Part of the WPS’s low ranking for Pakistan is due to the discrepancies between women’s rights at the province level. The lowest-ranking provinces in the country performed almost four times as poorly as the highest-ranking provinces. These are disparities that, the WPS says, “national averages conceal.” WPS links this to the income and poverty rates within provinces. They also link extreme poverty to gender inequality in Pakistan. 

Rubina Baloch vaccinates a group of women and children at a health camp in Sindh Province. (Photo: Ingenius Captures/Concern Worldwide)

9. Central African Republic

Conditions for women have improved somewhat in the Central African Republic, mainly thanks to a decrease in organized violence that improved a sense of community safety in the 2021 WPS Index. This is a drop in the bucket, however. A crisis in the Central African Republic has entered its tenth year in 2022 and has a disproportionate effect on women. According to the WPS: 

  • Women in the CAR generally only have 3 years of schooling
  • Their representation in local parliament is less than 9%
  • Organized violence has gone down. Still, one out of every five Central African women still faces violence from an intimate partner. 

In addition to the data that forms the heart of the WPS Index, there are other indicators of and barriers to women’s rights in CAR. Harmful gender practices like early marriage mean that 61% of married women were in a union before their 18th birthday. Women of reproductive age are also restricted in terms of their sexual and reproductive health and rights. According to UN Women, just over a quarter of Central African women were able to access modern family planning resources in 2019. 

Between 50 and 80 pregnant mothers and children attend Concern’s mobile clinic in the village of Gbawi, CAR. Held twice a month, the clinic serves just over 3,000 people — around 600 of whom are under the age of five. (Photo: Chris de Bode/Concern Worldwide)

8. Somalia

Somalia ranks twelfth on the 2021 WPS Index. Highlights from their report:

  • Somalia has greater political representation for women than CAR (23% of the country’s Parliament is female)
  • However, the number of women in the workforce is drastically lower (23% compared to 68%)

In some cases, the indicators to meeting the Sustainable Development Goal of gender equality in the country are incomplete, due in part to Somalia’s protracted cycle of crisis. There are worrisome gaps in reporting, including data on women’s land ownership rights, harassment and violence against women, and the gender pay gap. 

Other indicators that the United Nations reports on do not suggest positive results in these areas. More than a third of Somali women were married before they turned 18. Only 2% of women in the country were able to access safe and modern family planning and birth control resources. This has led to one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world: For every 100,000 live births, 829 Somali women will die. 

Fowzia Hassan (pictured on the left in purple) is part of a women’s self-help group in Somalia. Since 2018, the women have learned how to survive hardships such as drought. They have weekly meetings to discuss issues raised by members and how to address these challenges. (Photo: Mustafa Saeed / Concern Worldwide)

7. Sierra Leone

Even higher than Somalia’s maternal mortality rate is Sierra Leone, where 1,120 women out of every 100,000 will die due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth. This has been a longstanding issue — one that Concern has addressed in part through our project, Innovations for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (2009-2016). While many in the country are pushing to overturn outdated and outmoded gender norms, crises have interrupted progress, such as the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic leading to an increase in unplanned teen pregnancies. 

While Sierra Leone has enjoyed relative peace for the last 20 years, gender-based violence is still a fact of life in many areas. According to the WPS Index:

  • Only 45.8% of Sierra Leonean women feel safe walking home at night in their communities
  • Most women also receive fewer than three years of an education.
  • School-related GBV is also a rule rather than an exception in Sierra Leone. (Concern is currently working to address this through the Safe Learning Model.)
  • Female genital mutilation (FGM) is common among 90% of women and girls ages 15-49

Concern Worldwide works in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown to address health challenges facing urban communities. Especially women and young children. Part of the strategy is to train and support a team of community health workers. Here, they learn to address issues such as malnutrition and maternal mortality. (Photo: Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide)

6. Sudan

The summer of 2019 brought several advances in women’s rights to Sudan, including:

  • The criminalization of FGM
  • The repeal of laws restricting women’s rights in terms of what they wore, where they could go, and what they could do for work
  • A target of 40% female representation in the country’s transitional parliament

This is a promising advancement for the country, though progress may be delayed given the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, only 22% of parliament was female-led (although this is already a huge step forward). 

Abda attends a training session on infant and young child feeding practices led by Concern Sudan. (Photo: Maad Mohammed Salih / Concern Worldwide)

5. Chad

Of the 162 countries ranked on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index for 2020, Chad ranks 160. Chad passed its Reproductive Health Law 20 years ago, which has led to a significant decrease in practices like FGM. However, child marriage is still common — one report conducted by Concern in 2015 showed that the median age for a first marriage was 16 for girls and 22 for boys. In one focus group for this report, a participant noted: “Early marriage is a custom in our community, but a real danger for the girl: pregnancy, surgery, death, and also several cases of running away.” 

“Early marriage is a custom in our community, but a real danger for the girl: pregnancy, surgery, death, and also several cases of running away.”  — Concern Chad focus group participant, 2015

Since that report, we’ve seen numbers like the percentage of women reporting intimate partner violence drop. However there’s still a lot of work to be done:

  • Women complete less than two years of school in Chad
  • Women are also chronically underrepresented in Chadian parliament
  • Chad also has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with 1,140 deaths for every 100,000 live births

4. Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo ranks 163 out of 170 on the 2021 WPS Index and 150 out of 162 on the UN’s 2020 Gender Inequality Index. Progress on gender equality in the DRC has been slow, with inequalities existing across all sectors. Many of these discrepancies exist at the legislative level. The WPS estimates 25% of national laws have some level of bias towards men. This has harsh ripple effects on gender equality in the DRC:

  • An estimated 51% of women in the DRC will experience violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime
  • 37% have reported so in the last 12 months
  • 37% of Congolese women also were married before their 18th birthday
  • For every 1,000 girls in the DRC, 124 will become mothers between ages 15 and 19

These numbers are reflected in the education discrepancy between genders: Men are almost twice as likely as women to go beyond primary education in the DRC — 65.8% of men versus 36.7% of women.

Adrenise Lusa, 60, from Manono Territory, DRC. In 2019, she joined Concern’s Graduation project and attended several trainings on entrepreneurship and income generation. These gave her ideas on how to increase her income. Using a mixture of a $100 USD asset transfer,  monthly cash transfers, and VSLA loans, she invested in multiple income generating methods. These include goat rearing and trading oil, maize, and cassava. “Before Concern’s project I didn’t start these businesses because I just didn’t have enough money.” Overall, her income has increased from 30,000 Francs per month to anywhere between 100,000 and 400,000 Francs per month, depending on the season.

3. South Sudan

Harmful gender norms as a result of a patriarchal culture have left women in South Sudan excluded from decision-making and political activity. Women have few decision-making powers within the household. A lack of resource ownership and land rights is at the heart of power imbalances between the genders.

  • Less than 5% of women are financially included within their communities and society
  • In 2020, the United Nations did not have enough data to accurately rank South Sudan on its Gender Inequality Index
  • It did, however report that the country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. More than 1% of pregnant South Sudanese woman will die due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth. 

The 2021 WPS Index works with a bit more data on South Sudan, enough to rank it 165th out of 170 countries for women’s rights and security. A longstanding conflict in the country makes it less safe for women both in their communities and with their domestic partners — one in four South Sudanese women have reported intimate partner violence. 

Chagawa* walks with Concern midwife Rebekka at a Mobile Health Clinic in a remote rural area of Aweil, South Sudan. The clinic visits five locations once a week. Chagawa has eight children and is 9 months pregnant with her ninth. She comes to the clinic every time it is here. She had back and stomach pain, and almost miscarried, but she went to the Concern-led clinic.“I wasn’t worried, I had medical people taking care of me!”

2. Syria

Before war broke out in 2011, gender dynamics in Syria were traditionally patriarchal: Women only gained the right to vote in national elections in the mid-1950s, and, while they were allowed to work, they made up a small percent of the pre-war workforce. Many Syrian women, particularly in the country’s then-thriving middle class, opted to stay at home and raise families. Syrians still view marriage as a contract between the husband and the wife’s father. It was only in 2020 that the country criminalized honor killings. 

The protracted Syrian crisis has exacerbated many of these gender norms, while also introducing many of the gendered complications that come with conflict. One of the reasons Syria ranks so low on the WPS Index owes to ongoing conflict.

  • 75 out of every 100,000 Syrian women are killed in organized violence
  • Only 16.9% of women feel safe in their own communities
  • Georgetown University qualifies the number of conflict-related incidences of sexual violence as “massive”
  • Nearly 25% of Syrian women have reported experiencing violence from an intimate partner

These numbers are even higher for Syrian refugee women. Syria performs slightly better on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, however some of the determining factors — including years of education between men and women — are a bit skewed, as conflict has prevented an entire generation of Syrian girls and boys from having a basic education

50-year-old Maha* was a primary school teacher in Syria before she fled to Lebanon in 2014. She now lives on her own in a concrete collective center housing ten refugee families. It was originally built to house chickens.
She attended a 12-week women’s group organized by Concern to discuss their shared experiences. It provided psychosocial support, and helped promote gender equality, reduce gender-based violence, and manage protection issues. “I love to sit with other women in the group and talk together. When we share our problems, I see mine as small.” (Photo: Darren Vaughan)

1. Afghanistan

Afghanistan ranks last out of 170 countries on the WPS Index and 157th out of 162 on the UN Gender Inequality Index. More than four decades of conflict and crisis combined with regressive gender norms have left many Afghan women and girls uneducated.

  • Afghan girls who are allowed to attend school generally don’t stay for more than two years
  • This reflects in financial inclusion for women in the country; which the WPS ranks at just 7.2%
  • The country also ranks among the highest for gender-based violence. 35 out of every 100 women are exposed to violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

Along with neighboring Pakistan, honor killings are illegal here, but still widely prevalent. 

Women’s rights: Your Concern in action

None of the issues listed in these countries, which rank among the worst for women’s rights, can be fixed overnight or through policy change alone. Change and progress towards gender equality happens at the community, family, and even individual level — questioning intrinsic gender norms held by and for both women and men, what it means to be a woman or a man, and how equity can coexist with tradition. 

Yet we also see how deep the connections go between gender inequality and issues like poverty, hunger, conflict, and climate change. At Concern, gender transformation is at the heart of all of our programs, whether they’re designed to address agricultural challenges, help individuals build small businesses, respond to an acute crisis, or end hunger. As an international team of over 4,000, and with the millions of people we serve each year, critically examine and challenge gender dynamics in order to make greater, more sustainable progress towards ending extreme poverty. Where it makes sense, we also build and strengthen systems to support that level of equality.

These initiatives include mandatory gender training — for men and women — for participants in our Graduation program, a multi-year, multi-million Euro project to develop a safe learning model for schools in Sierra Leone, and advocating at the policy level with local and national representatives to ensure that new policies help to restore gender parity.