Improving Gender Equality in Africa

February 5, 2014


Gender equality is a fundamental development objective, and is essential to enabling women and men to participate equally in society and in the economy. The World Bank’s Africa Region is dedicated to improving the lives of women and men by supporting government partners with knowledge and finance.

Significant progress has been made in closing gender gaps in Sub-Saharan Africa: by 2008, there were 91 girls for every 100 boys in primary school, up from 85 girls in 1999. And at 61 percent, women in Sub-Saharan Africa have one of the highest labor force participation rates in the world. Despite these gains, African women continue to face some grim facts. Girls are still much less likely than boys to benefit from a secondary education. An African woman faces a 1 in 31 chance of dying from complications due to pregnancy or childbirth, compared to a 1 in 4,300 chance in the developed world. And women and girls often have little influence over resources and norms, restricting what jobs and crops are considered appropriate for women and thus limiting their earning potential in agriculture, enterprise or the labor market. Women’s voice and agency remain limited, with rates of gender-based violence reaching alarming levels. Poor access to legal rights, sexual and reproductive health services, freedom of movement, and political voice pose additional constraints for women. Attitudes and customs perpetuate many of these inequalities across generations.

The World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development laid out much of the current knowledge about gender gaps worldwide, but relatively little is known about effective and scalable solutions to these challenges. To address this, the World Bank is committed to incorporating gender into operational and analytical work through a variety of approaches:


Sitting squarely at the intersection of policy and operations is the Africa Region’s Gender Innovation Lab (GIL). In close collaboration with project teams, the GIL designs and rigorously evaluates new interventions to generate knowledge on which policies work (or not) to close gender gaps in earnings, productivity and agency. This will enable project teams and policymakers to advocate for better gender integration from a position of evidence. The GIL is currently working on more than 40 impact evaluations in 20 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Following in the steps of the Africa Region, other Regions are also establishing units focused on rigorously assessing projects with a focus on gender. The engender IMPACT database compiles all gender-related impact evaluations led or supported by the World Bank Group.


The World Bank is committed to funding more gender-informed projects, monitoring their results more closely, and making sure that projects increasingly consider gender in their design, even when they do not have an explicit gender focus. In fiscal year 2013, 99% of World Bank lending to African countries took gender into consideration. 

Gender is a special theme of International Development Association (IDA), which is providing close to $50 billion in credits and grants to the poorest countries between 2011 and 2014—many of which are in Africa. The Africa Region Gender Action Plan is guided by the four strategic priorities outlined in the 2012 World Development Report. These priority areas are:

  • Reducing excess female mortality: Africa is the only region in the world where the absolute number of “missing” women has actually increased over the last two decades, largely due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, high rates of maternal deaths, and poor water, sanitation and health services.
  • Closing gaps in productivity and earnings: Women are more likely to work in less productive sectors, less profitable areas, in low-wage or unpaid family employment, or in the informal wage sector.
  • Shrinking differences in voice in the household and society: Many women in Sub-Saharan Africa have little degree of control over household decisions or about how their earnings are spent.
  • Investing in youth to break intergenerational cycles of gender inequality: Targeted interventions for women during the defining adolescent stage have the ability to curb patterns of risky sexual behavior, encourage girls to stay in school or engage in skills training, and combat institutionalized gender inequality. The GIL partners with the World Bank’s Adolescent Girls Initiative (AGI) to assess possible interventions using experimental approaches like and apprenticeship programs, and livelihoods and health trainings.


The gender data portal is a one-stop shop for gender information, launched by World Bank President Jim Kim in the summer of 2012.