Why are constitutions important?

Why do rights matter?

Who gets the right to be equal?

In a world where basic human rights are under attack and discrimination is widespread, Advancing Equality reminds us of the critical role of constitutions in creating and protecting equal rights.

Combining a comparative analysis of equal rights in the constitutions of all 193 United Nations member countries with inspiring stories of activism and powerful court cases from around the globe, the book traces the trends in constitution drafting over the past half century and examines how stronger protections against discrimination have transformed lives.

 

Looking at equal rights across gender, race and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, social class, and migration status, the authors uncover which groups are increasingly guaranteed equal rights in constitutions, whether or not these rights on paper have been translated into practice, and which nations lag behind.

 

Serving as a comprehensive call to action for anyone who cares about their country’s future, Advancing Equality challenges us to remember how far we all still must go for equal rights for all.

 

 

Equal Rights &

Non-Discrimination

Social & Economic Rights Fundamental to Equality

Practical Information

 

Race & Ethnicity

  • As of 2017, 76% of the world’s constitutions guarantee equal rights or non-discrimination regardless of race/ethnicity.

  • Globally, 17% of constitutions allow for affirmative measures to remedy historic inequalities.

  • Guarantees have become more common over time. Whereas 49% of current constitutions adopted before the 1970s guarantee equal rights regardless of race/ethnicity, 79% of those adopted in 2010–2017 do so.

Gender & Sex

  • 85% of the world’s constitutions globally explicitly guarantee equal rights or prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and/or gender.

  • 7% of countries guarantee gender equality but allow customary or religious law to supersede the constitution, which may jeopardize equal rights.

  • Protections are more common in more recently adopted constitutions: whereas 54% of current constitutions adopted before the 1970s included a gender equality guarantee, 100% of those adopted since 2000 do so.

 

Migrants & Refugees

  • Globally, 22% of constitutions prohibit discrimination on the basis of citizenship, while 60% include protections of equal rights regardless of national origin.

  • 17% of constitutions protect the right to education for non-citizens; however, 4% explicitly restrict some aspect of this right or reserve education rights for citizens.

  • Similarly, 14% of constitutions protect non-citizens’ right to health, but 3% of constitutions restrict health rights to citizens.

 

Religion & Belief

  • Around the world, 78% of constitutions explicitly guarantee equality or non-discrimination based on religion or belief.

  • 46% of constitutions explicitly prohibit freedom of religion from infringing in any way on the rights and freedoms of others.

  • Nearly half of constitutions that include a commitment to secularism also include language privileging a specific religion or religion generally.

Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity

  • Just 5% of the world’s constitutions guarantee equal rights regardless of sexual orientation, while 3% extend these protections to gender identity as well.

  • At the same time, another 6% of countries prohibit the right to marry for same-sex couples or allow for legislation to do so.

  • All of the constitutional bans on same-sex marriage were enacted since 2000, suggesting that they were in direct response to recent gains for LGBT+ rights.

 
 

People with Disabilities

  • Around the world, 27% of constitutions explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability.

  • 32% of constitutions include protections of educational rights for children with disabilities. However, just 4% address integrated education, and this language generally falls short of full inclusion.

  • Just 12% of current constitutions adopted before 1970 prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, compared to 71% of those adopted in 2010–2017.

 
 

Socioeconomic Status

  • Overall, just 59% of the world’s constitutions include guarantees of non-discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic status.

  • Just 34% of current constitutions adopted before the 1970s guarantee equality and non-discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic status.

  • Among constitutions adopted between 2010 and 2017, 83% include such guarantees.

The Right to Education

  • Globally, 83% of countries’ constitutions explicitly protect some aspect of the right to education.

  • 68% of constitutions explicitly protect the right to primary education, 46% explicitly extend this protection to secondary, and 31% protect the right to tertiary education.

  • Just 63% of current constitutions adopted before 1970 include a right to education, compared to all constitutions that have been adopted since 2000.

 

The Right to Health

  • Globally, 74% countries explicitly protect the right to health for all citizens in their constitutions: 58% guarantee health rights, and 16% specify that health rights are aspirational or subject to progressive realization.

  • Among current constitutions adopted before the 1970s, only 29% explicitly protect health for all citizens.

  • Among constitutions adopted in 2010–2017, 100% address health rights for all citizens.

 

How Did We Learn This?

The WORLD Policy Analysis Center examined primary constitutional texts in force as of May 2017 from all 193 UN member states to construct its database of constitutional rights that acted as the foundation for this work.

For more information about the authors’ approach to building globally comparative databases analyzing constitutional rights around the globe,  please visit the WORLD Policy Analysis Center's Constitutional Rights Database Methods page.

 
 

About the Authors

Jody Heymann, MD, PhD, is Founding Director of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center (WORLD), which she has led for over a decade, and Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. WORLD analyzes over 2,000 policies and laws in all 193 UN member states in a range of areas, including equity and discrimination, constitutional rights, poverty alleviation, adult labor, child labor, education, disability, and child marriage. As the largest global policy data center of its kind, WORLD brings together policymakers, academics, and civil society to advance evidence-based policy reforms in communities around the world.

Heymann has authored and edited more than 380 publications analyzing laws, public policies, and constitutional rights worldwide, including 18 books. She has received numerous honors, including election to the National Academy of Medicine in 2013 and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences in 2012. Heymann received her MD and PhD in Public Policy from Harvard University.

Aleta Sprague is a Senior Legal Analyst at the WORLD Policy Analysis Center, where her research focuses on legal reforms to advance social and economic equality. Sprague has reviewed constitutional cases from over 40 countries to better understand the impacts of constitutional approaches to equality and social and economic rights. Prior to joining WORLD, she was a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a public policy think tank, where her research focused on poverty, access to public assistance programs, and financial inclusion for low-income communities both within the U.S. and in developing countries.

Sprague’s policy writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, CNN.com, Business Insider, and a range of other mainstream publications as well as academic journals. She received her JD from the UCLA School of Law, where she focused on international law and human rights and completed a specialization in Critical Race Studies.

Amy Raub, Principal Research Analyst at the WORLD Policy Analysis Center, is responsible for the translation of WORLD’s comparative policy research on all 193 UN countries into findings for policymakers, citizens, civil society, and researchers. Raub has been deeply involved with the development of WORLD's databases on constitutional rights, laws, and policies since 2008. She has presented WORLD’s findings at international conferences and to UN human rights committees and various civil society groups. Raub has a background in statistical analysis for economic consulting, including the examination of disparities based on race, gender, and age in issues related to mortgage lending, police stops, and employment.

Raub’s publications include statistical analyses of the relationship between policies and outcomes, overviews of the status of constitutional rights globally, and assessments of whether countries are meeting their international commitments in human rights conventions. She received her MS in Economics from The University of Texas at Austin.