By Stella Dawson

WASHINGTON, Sept 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Saudi Arabia tops the list of countries for laws that limit women's economic potential, while South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa have made the least progress over the last 50 years in improving women's economic opportunities, a report issued on Tuesday says.

In the last half century, women's rights worldwide have improved significantly and yet in almost 90 percent of the 143 countries surveyed in the World Bank study, at least one law remains on the books to bar women from certain jobs, opening a bank account, accessing capital or making independent decisions.

Twenty-eight countries make 10 or more legal distinctions between the rights of men and women, and half of these countries are in the Middle East and North Africa, followed by 11 in sub-Saharan Africa, it said.

The World Bank report shows that when there is a gender gap in legal rights, fewer women own their businesses and income inequality is greatest, a finding that offers fresh insight on the impact that reducing barriers to women's economic opportunities could have on reducing world poverty.

"When women and men participate in economic life on an equal footing, they can contribute their energies to building a more cohesive society and more resilient economy," said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in releasing the report, Women Business and the Law.

Kim has set as a World Bank priority ending extreme poverty by 2030. Empowering women is viewed by development experts as crucial to achieving that goal, since women have the primary responsibility for the family. Women's economic inclusion helps lift household incomes, leading to healthier children who are more likely to attend school and who in turn raise themselves from poverty.

Countries everywhere have started to remove legal obstacles to women's economic participation, but the progress has been uneven. In Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, legal restrictions have been cut in half since 1960, said Augusto Lopez-Claros, director of global indicators at the World Bank.

MIDDLE EAST LAGS

But the Middle East region shows the least progress and some countries have gone backwards. Yemen and Egypt have removed from their constitutions bans on gender discrimination. Iran has allowed husbands to prevent their wives from working, placed restrictions on women's mobility and limited their work in the judicial sector, the report said.

Sarah Iqbal, program officer at the World Bank and lead author of the report, said the persistence of legal restrictions remains one of the most discouraging aspects of the report. "We have come a long way but still have a great way to go," she said in a news briefing.

About 25 percent of countries surveyed have no laws addressing domestic violence and again the Middle East and North Africa region has the least protections, the report found. Additionally, Algeria and Morocco are the only countries in the region that have laws addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, the report found.

Yet advancements worldwide have been made in the past two years. Forty-four countries improved economic opportunities for women between April 2011 and April 2013, the time period the report covers, and no new restrictions were imposed.

Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Mali, for instance, no longer allow husbands to unilaterally forbid their wives from working; the Philippines has removed restrictions on night work for women, and Slovakia increased the wages paid women during maternity leave.

The 2014 report covers 143 countries and was based on data from April 2011 to April 2013, on an examination of laws, and interviews with country experts in family and labor law. In addition, it looked at how conditions have changed over the past 50 years on two indicators - women's access to institutions and use of property in 100 countries.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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