Getting To Equal: Promoting Gender Equality through Human Development

May 8, 2013

Gender equality leads to better human development outcomes. This key finding of the World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development (WDR 2012) underscores the World Bank Group’s commitment to support gender equality in health, education, and social protection and labor. The Bank’s global strategies and country programs in these sectors aim to reduce disparities between men and women and across population groups. To achieve this, the Bank’s assistance in these sectors includes expanding access to family planning and reproductive health services, promoting gender parity in education, providing social safety nets and insurance, and helping people acquire needed resources and skills.


Women still lack voice and the ability to participate in decisions that impact them, their families, and their societies, and their economic opportunities remain very constrained. Addressing gender inequalities is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do, because inequality is costly. Studies show that gender progress benefits everyone, not just women and girls. Economies thrive, women, men, girls, and boys have access to equal opportunities, and communities prosper when women and men are equally empowered. Disparities in gender equality come with economic costs, shortchange the next generation, and lead to suboptimal institutions and policies.

The WDR 2012 demonstrates that gender equality shapes investments and outcomes in health, education, social protection, and labor. Prevailing gender roles, social norms, and social networks influence control over resources and access to services, and rules and norms imposed by a range of institutions shape the status of women and men. However, too often these services may not be equally accessible or affordable to men and woman, with impacts muted by gender norms, discrimination, and market failures.

In education, the persistence of gender gaps among girls or boys depends increasingly on whether schooling actually produces knowledge and skills, and the failure is most severe for those facing multiple sources of disadvantage often based on gender, location, disability, and income. In poorer households, for instance, lower quantity and quality of education are often greater obstacles for girls than boys. For example, in both India and Pakistan, while boys and girls from the top income quintile participate in school at similar rates, there is a gender gap of almost five years in the bottom income quintile.

In health, an estimated 10-20 million women suffer from preventable reproductive health illnesses annually, with more than 287,000 maternal deaths each year. Additionally, 72 percent of youth living with HIV/AIDS worldwide are young women, and the lack of access to knowledge about contraception too often results in unwanted pregnancy or unsafe abortions. Country health systems must be able to deliver quality health services and transform people’s health-related choices and behaviors.

In social protection programs and in the workplace, women experience significantly lower labor market participation rates and earnings than men, and face institutional and regulatory failures, such as lack of child support, constraints to mobility, and reduced coverage for social insurance programs. 


To respond to these challenges, the Bank has structured its investments across these sectors to help countries eliminate persistent gender barriers to women accessing quality social services, entering the job market, and building resilience to shocks. This work builds on findings that have shown that gender equality benefits society as a whole. Gender equality is affected by the household decisions that women and men make in their daily lives, and the status of both women and men is shaped by the rules and norms imposed by a range of limitations. The Bank’s strategies for education, health, and social protection and labor explicitly address gender equality.

Learning for All, the education strategy, articulates how the Bank supports countries to address gender equality and advance gender parity in education through a combination of effective policies and sustained national investments in education; improving countries’ education system capacity to raise not only school attendance but also learning outcomes. In order to improve learning outcomes for all, the education sector recognizes the importance of addressing multiple or overlapping sources of disadvantage. Being born a poor girl in a rural community or to an ethno-linguistic minority group compounds education and life disadvantages and increases vulnerability. At the same time the Bank stresses how and why educating girls and women is smart economics. Evidence shows that one additional year of schooling for girls and women increases their wages by at least 10 percent; reduces infant mortality rates by at least 5 percent; and enables per capita income growth of at least 0.3 percent on average. The Bank plays a key role in advancing girls’ education through its research, funding, policy advocacy, and strategic partnerships including the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative.

Healthy Development: The World Bank Strategy for Health, Nutrition, and Population Results and Reproductive Health Action Plan focus on reducing high fertility, improving pregnancy outcomes, and reducing sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV. Specific interventions include strengthening health systems to achieve better reproductive health outcomes by improving access to and knowledge of family planning among households, increasing antenatal visits and skilled birth attendance, training health workers, and promoting youth-friendly services and young women’s life skills, and promoting multi-sector investments to improve reproductive health outcomes.

The Bank’s Social Protection and Labor Strategy 2012 builds on ongoing work to emphasize gender equality as a key outcome of well-designed social protection systems, highlighting the need for institutions, policies, and programs to close gender gaps. The strategy helps rethink social insurance programs and labor regulations to expand the coverage of women. To support this work, the Bank is producing new tools, data and research to generate knowledge about the links between gender equality and human development, and is consolidating and analyzing data on gender-specific indicators of human development across countries.


Hundreds of Bank-supported activities around the globe have contributed to gender equality through investments in human development. There have been significant results across all three sectors at the country and global levels:

Improved education access and quality: In Punjab, Pakistan, home to 60 percent of the country’s population, the Bank is helping expand access to quality education and promote better governance and accountability in the education system. Under the government’s Bank-supported program, since 2008 more than 400,000 eligible girls have received targeted monthly stipends tied to school attendance; and the government supports approximately 2,000 low-cost private schools serving nearly a million low-income students. In a separate program in the country, the government support program has seen the primary net enrollment rate increase from 50 percent to 54 percent since 2007 and the ratio of female-male primary net enrollment rise in rural areas from 61 percent to 76 percent.

Improved school attendance by changing incentives: In Cambodia, where low school completion rates are high, a Bank-supported program addresses constraints in supply, demand, quality and efficiency, with a special focus on poor communities. The program has expanded schools in poor areas, instituted teacher training, and funded scholarships to help children transition from primary to secondary schools. Between 2005 and 2007, the program resulted in more than a 20 percentage point increase in enrollment and attendance in participating schools for both girls and boys. Four years later, the program was found to also have increased the transition rates to upper secondary school, especially among girls.

Improved nutrition for women and children: Tajikistan faces high stunting rates, the result of under-nutrition, a condition exacerbated by the 2008 food price shock. To mitigate the risk of malnutrition, the Bank-supported community and basic health project provides food packages and micronutrient supplements to approximately 50,000 women, infants and children under age 5. By mid-2011, the project had trained 1,000 primary healthcare workers and 300 community volunteers to deliver education on breastfeeding, good nutrition and care of sick children to 1,000 pregnant woman, and micronutrient supplements and vitamins had been delivered to approximately 44,000 women and children.

Breaking normative barriers in the job market: In El Salvador, a Bank-supported project has been helping narrow differences in access to economic opportunities and earnings between women and men by providing training modules that enhance beneficiaries’ basic technical skills. In the first round, 77 percent of participants were women. The program is expected to lower economic and cultural barriers to women’s employment in urban poor districts. A rigorous impact evaluation will test whether participants are effectively increasing their prospects for employment.

Reducing stigma related to HIV/AIDS: In 2008, the Bank organized a South Asia Regional Development Marketplace that awarded small grants to community groups and networks to fund innovative approaches to reducing HIV/AIDS stigma, reaching nearly 100,000 people. As a result, India’s national AIDS program is moving forward with work to reduce stigma in health care settings, and a global stigma action network has been formed.

Global gains in women’s rights and investments in health and education services: On the global scale, life expectancies, educational access, and educational attainment for both men and women have increased, reducing many gender gaps. More women are participating in the labor market, and greater numbers of women occupy more positions of power.

Reaching gender parity in primary education: Two-thirds of the Bank’s partner countries have now reached gender parity in primary education, and girls significantly outnumber boys in secondary education in more than one-third of those countries. These successes result from a combination of effective policies and sustained national investments in education that have expanded the availability of schools even in rural areas and have lowered the cost of school, especially for the poor.


Gender is a special theme of the Bank’s fund for the poorest, the International Development Association. The Bank is putting more emphasis on and money into, gender-related projects where it is needed most, and is monitoring specific gender-related deliverables in these countries during the three-year period.


In addition to targeted financing, timely and reliable data across countries on gender-specific indicators are necessary to monitor progress and identify trouble spots. More and better impact assessments of policies and programs, and more active knowledge exchange among countries regarding gender-related barriers can enrich global debate and strengthen future policy making. To contribute to these goals, the Bank recognizes the importance of working in partnership with the international community to promote innovation and learning on human development and gender equality.


There is still much work to do. Many critical gender gaps persist at country and global levels, and the Bank will continue to use and improve all of the tools at its disposal to expand and strengthen investments in quality human development programs that address these gender disparities and create equal opportunity.

of the Bank’s partner countries have now reached gender parity in primary education.