Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity
The report, released ahead of the International Day of the Girl Child, distills vast data and hundreds of studies to shed new light on constraints facing women and girls worldwide, from epidemic levels of gender-based violence to biased laws and norms that prevent them from owning property, working, and making decisions about their own lives. It highlights promising reforms and interventions from around the world and lays out an urgent agenda for governments, civil society, development agencies, and other stakeholders.
Among its keys findings: Girls with little or no education are far more likely to be married as children, suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own health care than better-educated peers, which harms them, their children, and communities.
Across 18 of the 20 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage, girls with no education were up to six times more likely to marry than girls with high school education, the report finds. Nearly one in five girls in developing countries meanwhile becomes pregnant before age 18, while pregnancy-related causes account for most deaths among girls 15-19 in the developing world—nearly 70,000 die each year.
Despite recent advances in important aspects of the lives of girls and women, pervasive challenges remain, frequently as a result of widespread deprivations and constraints. These often violate women’s most basic rights and are magnified and multiplied by poverty and lack of education.
In all regions, better educated women tend to marry later and have fewer children. Enhanced agency—the ability to make decisions and act on them—is a key reason why children of better educated women are less likely to be stunted: Educated mothers have greater autonomy in making decisions and more power to act for their children’s benefit.
Voice and Agency, which builds on the 2012 World Development Report, focuses on several areas key to women’s empowerment: freedom from violence, control over sexual and reproductive health and rights, ownership and control of land and housing, and voice and collective action.
It explores the power of social norms in dictating how men and women can and cannot behave—deterring women from owning property or working even where laws permit, for example, because those who do become outcasts.
In 128 countries, laws treat men and women differently—making it impossible, for example, for a woman to independently obtain an ID card, own or use property, access credit, or get a job.
- Gender-based violence is a global phenomenon, and in most regions no place is less safe for a woman than her own home: More than one in three women have experienced violence, the vast majority committed by their husbands or boyfriends. That's 700 million women—close to the total population of Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Girls are increasingly completing school and university, but their work choices remain restricted, by laws and/or social norms that dictate whether and what work is appropriate. Foregone costs in terms of productivity and income can be huge.
- Many women lack sexual and reproductive rights: Data from 33 developing countries reveal that almost one third of women cannot refuse sex with their partners—rising to more than seven out of 10 Nigerian, Malian, and Senegalese women—and more than 41 percent across those 33 countries say they could not ask their partner to use a condom.
- Each year, almost one in five girls under 18 in developing countries gives birth: South Asia accounts for almost half of teen pregnancies in the developing world. In developing countries, pregnancy-related causes account for most deaths among girls aged 15-19—nearly 70,000 die each year. The lifetime opportunity costs of adolescent pregnancy, measured in terms of lost income, range as high as 30 percent of GDP in Uganda.
- Women and girls face a major gap in access to and use and ownerships of ICT. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 32 million fewer women have access to the Internet than men. In South Asia, 25 million fewer women have access, and in the Middle East and North Africa, 18 million.
- Delays in marriage are associated with greater educational achievement and lower fertility. And lower fertility can increase women’s life expectancy and has benefits for children’s health and education.
- When more women are elected to office, policy-making increasingly reflects the priorities of families, women, and excluded groups.
- Property ownership can enhance women’s agency by increasing the social status of women, amplifying their voice, and increasing their bargaining power within the household.
- Poverty increases gender gaps: Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely as their richer peers to marry young. Intimate partner violence is also more frequent and severe in poorer households across such diverse settings as India and Nicaragua.
- Women’s groups and collective action play a pivotal role in building momentum for progressive reform. Strong women’s movements are associated with more comprehensive policies on violence against women. And when more women are elected to office, policy-making increasingly reflects the priorities of families and women and results in greater responsiveness to citizen needs.
Policymakers and stakeholders need to tackle this agenda, drawing on evidence about what works and systematically tracking progress on the ground. This must start with reforming discriminatory laws and follow through with concerted policies and public actions, including multi-sectoral approaches that engage with men and boys and challenge adverse social norms.
Expanding opportunities and amplifying the voices of women and girls isn’t a zero-sum equation, because gender equality conveys broad development dividends for men and boys, families, and communities. Conversely, constraining women’s agency by limiting what jobs they can do or condoning gender-based violence can cause huge economic losses and hinder development efforts.
Increasing school enrollment and achieving gender equality in enrollment are longstanding development goals. Ensuring enrollment through upper secondary levels for girls is even more critical. Equally vital is what happens at school: Both girls and boys leave school literate and numerate and that the values of the school system promote gender equality and protect children from abuse.
Progress on the sexual and reproductive health front tends to involve multi-sectoral actions: access to contraception is critical, alongside raising awareness, life skills training, mentoring and peer group training, and activity clubs and sports.
Women’s land rights—which support women’s agency—can be strengthened by progressive legal reforms and improved governance. Mandatory joint-titling helps and statutory, customary, and religious regimes should be harmonized, with clear consent requirements for land transfer or sale.
More and better data are needed to measure progress and to hold governments and development agencies, such as the World Bank, to account. Recently agreed international Core Gender Indicators are a valuable basis, alongside agreed statistical indicators and guidelines for measuring violence against women. More rigorous evaluations of what works are also needed, particularly around collective voice, normative change, and program design, the report says.
In 2012, the World Bank Group introduced a new Gender Data site, which comprises surveys, statistics, analytical work, and reference materials covering girls’ and women’s employment, access to productive activities, education, health, public life and decision-making, human rights, and demographic outcomes.