Learn how the World Bank Group is helping countries with COVID-19 (coronavirus). Find Out


Women See Great Progress, But Obstacles to Equality Remain

March 8, 2010

  • Bank continues to strengthen its support for women and gender-related issues in developing countries.
  • Gender issues informed the design of 45% of all Bank lending operations in FY08, up from 35% in FY06.
  • Gender-focused programs help women gain access to electricity, own property and make the transition from schooling to work.

March 8, 2010—Women have much to celebrate on International Women’s Day. Today, they govern in countries as diverse as Germany, Chile and Liberia; live longer and better lives than their mothers and grandmothers; and increasingly contribute to the world’s economy. Still, too many women continue to die while giving birth and make less money than their male counterparts.

“We have lived through dramatic changes in the last 20 years,” said World Bank Gender Director Mayra Buvinic. “Women have increased their political participation and have massively entered the workforce. They are breaking all kinds of glass ceilings.”

Since 1970, women’s average life expectancy has increased by some 20 years in developing countries, while the global gap between girls and boys attending primary school has been reduced dramatically.

But women still trail men in the workplace, at the bank and on the farm. Women earn some 22% less in salary than their male counterparts, and their access to credit is limited. In Africa, for instance, women receive 1% of total credit going to agriculture though they represent a majority of workers in the sector. In addition, women’s risk of dying from maternal causes in developing countries is 13 times higher than in industrialized nations.

Improving Women’s Lives

The World Bank has increased its overall support for gender-related issues in developing countries. Gender issues informed the design of 45% of all lending operations in FY08 –from July 2007 to June 2008-- compared to 35% in FY06.

“We will continue to make every effort to help women improve and increase their role in the economy, not only because it is good for women but also for development and economic growth,” explained Otaviano Canuto, World Bank Vice President for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, it is estimated that agricultural activity could be raised by as much as 20% if agricultural inputs were more equally distributed between men and women. And in countries like Brazil, the survival probabilities of a child increase by about 20 percent when income is in the hands of the mother instead of the father.

One way the Bank is helping women is by increasing integration of gender issues in the economic arena – in infrastructure, access to credit and finance, and agriculture.

Launched in 2007, the Bank Group’s Gender Action Plan (GAP)—Gender Equality as Smart Economics -- has played a central role. In Lao PDR, for instance, the GAP and the government of Australia funded a successful project that is helping homes headed by women, who account for 43% of poor households, gain access to electricity.

Across the world, mothers are being empowered through conditional cash transfer programs, in which they receive cash stipends in exchange for sending their children to school and to regular clinic visits. The Bank backs this kind of program in 13 countries—providing $2.4 billion for this activity in FY09, during the economic crisis. The Bank is also helping increase land titling to include the names of both spouses on property papers, rather than only the husband’s, as has been the case in Ethiopia.

In Africa, in countries like Ghana and Kenya, the Bank is working to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS; improve education; and expand access to water and sanitation. In East Asia and the Pacific, the Bank is preparing a new Regional Gender Action Plan to help address the range of challenges that both genders still face -- from accessing quality education to finding opportunities for employment.

“Once you’ve invested in education of your people, make sure you get a return,” said Vikram Nehru, World Bank Director for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management in the East Asia and Pacific Region.

In Afghanistan, the World Bank, along with other international partners, has been working since 2001 on a series of education programs aimed at providing access and quality education at all levels with a focus on girls. Enrollment in grades 1-12 increased from 3.9 million in 2004 to 6.2 million in 2008. Girls’ enrollment skyrocketed from 839,000 to more than 2.2 million, and boys’ from 2.6 million to 3.9 million—the highest enrollment in the history of Afghanistan.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Bank is working to reduce gender inequalities produced by the transition to a market economy. And in Latin America and the Caribbean, gender activities include efforts to “engender” infrastructure. One example is the Peru Rural Roads Program, where an increasing number of women were employed in road maintenance, helping other women to travel further and more safely.

Moving Forward

According to the Bank’s Gender Director Mayra Buvinic, Bank lending is moving toward increased support for women and development activities, and to address problems that have not been resolved.

On maternal mortality, the Bank is preparing an Action Plan on Reproductive Health. Likewise, it is strengthening provision of economic and financial services to women entrepreneurs. But these efforts won’t be enough if they’re not founded on clear data and better evaluations of impact on the ground.

“We want to transition from advocacy to evidence-based actions,” said Arianna Legovini, the Bank's Head of the Development Impact Evaluation Initiative, during a seminar on impact evaluation. “There are very compelling evidence and economic arguments to take into account gender issues.”

“Working for women’s equality is a moral imperative, but it is also the smart economic thing to do,” said Buvinic. “One of our contributions as a global institution is to ensure that the world understands that and takes action accordingly.”