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Overview

Accelerating Gender Equality and investing in empowerment generates large economic gains. No society can develop sustainably without transforming and amplifying the distribution of opportunities, resources, and choices for men and women so that they have equal power to shape their own lives and contribute to their families, communities, and countries.

Women’s employment can be a central driver of inclusive growth. On average across countries, long-run GDP per capita would be almost 20% higher if gender employment gaps were closed. Studies estimate economic gains in the order of $5-6 trillion if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate men do. In the context of rising risks of stagflation and the likelihood of recession in many parts of the world, it will be costly for countries to rely on the talents of only half of their population.  Addressing critical gender gaps is an opportunity to boost incomes and stimulate growth. 

Gender equality can accelerate progress towards other development goals, including addressing food insecurity, climate change, and conflict and fragility. To this end, investments, reforms, and interventions are especially needed to: a) boost earnings and productivity of women farmers, entrepreneurs, and businesses; b) expand female labor force participation and employment; and c) promote women’s engagement and participation in decision making in communities, businesses, and the public sector.

For example, closing agricultural gender gaps can economically empower women and support food production. In Nigeria, $2.3 billion in agricultural produce could be added by closing this gap; in Tanzania, it would lead to 80,000 more people adequately nourished each year. Gender-sensitive extension services; equal land rights; addressing labor, input, and capital constraints for women farmers; and fostering inclusion along the value chain can boost food production. Women’s empowerment can also improve nutrition through agricultural and household practices.

Climate change and climate policies affect men and women in different ways, especially among poor, vulnerable, and socially disadvantaged groups. Working on gender and climate together can result in impacts greater than addressing each issue in isolation. This entails leveraging women’s empowerment and leadership in community, business, industry, and policymaking circles to enable better resource management, environmental stewardship, and disaster preparedness; strengthening women’s assets, access to finance, and economic inclusion to build resilience and adaptive capacity; and promoting equal opportunities in the green transition.

The World Bank Group (WBG) is increasing its focus on gender equality in fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV), ensuring services and interventions based on gender-differentiated impacts and needs, better evidence on the gender dimensions of FCV, and​ promotion of women's leadership and empowerment as essential to security and prosperity.​​ For example, the WBG has generated groundbreaking research on the gender dimensions of forced displacement that will help inform operations.  

The WBG’s work on gender is an ambitious and shared commitment across the institution. In 2022, the Bank launched the year-long #AccelerateEquality initiative, which explores the progress made and lessons learned over the last 10 years in closing gender gaps and promoting girls’ and women's empowerment.  The WBG is leveraging the lessons learned from this year-long initiative to inform the update to the WBG Gender Strategy, which will be launched in 2024.

Persistent Challenges

Human Development

Health 

Globally, progress has been made in improving access to quality health services for women and girls, yet much remains to be done.  

According to data collected before the pandemic, maternal mortality was on the decline globally, decreasing to 211 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2017, from 342 in 2000. Over the past decade, South Asia and Europe and Central Asia have seen the most improvement in maternal mortality than other regions – they’ve decreased their rates by 31% and 23% respectively. And although sub-Saharan Africa has the highest maternal mortality and adolescent fertility rates of any region in the world, these rates have continued to decrease over the last decade by 15% and 13%, respectively. 

Almost all maternal deaths can be prevented, as evidenced by the huge disparities found across regions and between the richest and poorest countries. Two regions, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, account for 86% of maternal deaths worldwide. Over two-thirds (68%) of all maternal deaths per year worldwide happens in Sub-Saharan Africa who suffer from the highest maternal mortality ratio – 533 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.  

Across the globe, births attended by a skilled health professional had increased from 63% in 2000 to 81% in 2018. However, the numbers are still lower but improving in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa – increasing in South Asia from 41% in 2000 to 61% in 2018, and in Sub-Saharan Africa from 36% in 2000 to 76% in 2018.   Furthermore, women comprise 70% of the global health and social care workforce, however, they only hold around 25% of decision-making posts.   

With 1.2 billion adolescents in the world, there have been concrete improvements in some aspects of adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights and wellbeing. Although fertility among young people has slowly and steadily declined, girls living in Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest fertility in the world, with one quarter giving birth before the age of 18. Because approximately 40% of all pregnancies from developing countries are unplanned, attention to adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (ASRHR) is essential. High unmet need for contraceptives remains particularly acute among adolescents, leading to large numbers of unwanted pregnancies. It is estimated that, of at least 10 million unintended pregnancies among adolescents each year, 5.6 million end in abortion, with the vast majority being unsafe abortions. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. Children born to adolescents are also more likely to have a low birth weight, increased child morbidity and poor nutritional outcomes, including stunting. Adolescence is a period in which health behaviors are established and it is estimated that nearly 35% of the global burden of disease has roots in adolescence. Enabling women and girls to make decisions over their own bodies and health is therefore key to improve health outcomes. 

Despite greater awareness of the sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents, some key issues have not improved and more and better data and evidence are needed.

Education

While there has been steady and significant improvement in education outcomes, including increasing access and improving learning for girls and young women globally, progress is still lagging on some key indicators for girls’ education, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and in FCV contexts. 

A new generation of World Bank Education operations – for example, in Angola, Nigeria, and Tanzania – have integrated evidence-based interventions to provide safe spaces for girls in schools, improve girls' sexual and reproductive health, and target teachers to change norms. The Bank is continuing to test innovative programming and embed lessons learned on what works to promote women and girls’ educational outcomes in operations to ensure a “virtuous cycle” of enhanced knowledge and impact.

Globally, girls continue to lag substantially behind boys in secondary completion rates, and gender bias in the education system reinforces occupational segregation. When gender stereotypes are transmitted through the design of classroom learning environments or through the behavior of faculty, staff, and peers, it has sustained impacts on academic performance and field of study, especially in STEM fields. The consequences of limited educational opportunities for girls are significant.  A recent World Bank study estimates that the “limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion dollars in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.” 

Poverty remains the most important factor for determining whether a girl will access an education. Recent research looking at data from 24 low-income countries shows that, on average, only 34% of girls in the poorest-quintile households in these countries complete primary school, compared with 72% of girls in the richest-quintile households. Studies consistently reinforce that girls who face multiple sources of disadvantage such as income level, location, disability, and/or ethno-linguistic background are farthest behind.

Girls’ education goes beyond getting girls into school. It is also about ensuring that girls learn and feel safe while in school; have the opportunity to complete all levels of education; acquire the knowledge and skills to compete in the labor market; learn the socio-emotional and life skills necessary to navigate and adapt to a changing world; make decisions about their own lives; and contribute to their communities and the world. Better educated women tend to be more informed about nutrition and healthcare, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and their children are usually healthier, should they choose to become mothers. They are more likely to participate in the formal labor market and earn higher incomes. All these factors combined can help lift households, communities, and countries out of poverty.

But school closures during the pandemic may have put girls at a higher risk of not returning to school, limiting their learning and future opportunities.  The combination of school closures, increased gender-based violence (GBV) during the pandemic, and disruption of health services may also increase adolescent pregnancy. That presents a challenge to girls returning to school and hinders access to “safe spaces” (e.g., after-school girls’ clubs) for adolescents, further heightening the risk of GBV and pregnancy.

Challenges in Girls’ Education: The Numbers Tell the Story

  • There are over 129 million girls out of school worldwide: approximately 32 million of primary-school age, and 97 million of secondary-school age.  In South Asia, approximately 46 million primary and secondary school age girls are out of school. In Sub-Saharan Africa, that number is 52 million.  
  • While there are similar rates for primary completion globally (90% male, 89% female), in low-income countries, female school completion is lower – 36% compared with males at 44% at the secondary school level. 
  • In contexts of fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV), girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys, and at the secondary level, are 90% more likely to be out of secondary school than those in non-FCV contexts.  
  • It has been estimated that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women. The literacy rate (above 15 years old) for females is only 83% compared to 90% for males.  
  • Both boys and girls are facing a learning crisis.  Learning Poverty (LP) measures the share of children who are not able to read proficiently at age 10. While girls are on average 4 percentage points less learning-poor than boys, the rates remain very high for both groups.  The average of LP in LMICs is 59% for boys compared to 55% for girls.  The gap is narrower in low-income countries, where LP averages about 93% for both boys and girls.  

Economic

Economic opportunities / jobs

Women have lagged men in terms of employment opportunities, as demonstrated by a large gap in labor force participation in most countries, as well as wage gaps and occupational sex segregation, which push women toward lower productivity jobs. Labor force participation stagnates around 53% for women vs. 80% for men globally, with largest gaps in the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia regions.  Recurrent crises have compounded these gaps, extending the World Economic Forum estimate of the time it would take to close gender gaps under current policies from 100 to 132 years.

In India, for example, female employment remains concentrated in industries related to sanitation, education, chemicals, and tobacco, while higher-value industries such as research and development, computers, and transport have the lowest rates of female participation. Removing legal restrictions on the jobs that women can hold can reduce occupational segregation and the gender wage gap. According to Women, Business and the Law 2022 (WBL) report, 84 countries restrict women’s work, for example, at night or in factories and mines, and only 95 economies worldwide legally mandate equal remuneration for work of equal value in line with international standards. 

Women who work as farmers or entrepreneurs are often less productive than their male counterparts. In Ethiopia, for example, women produce 23% less per hectare than men. Research using data from 126 countries and covering more than 46,000 firms reveals a sizable gender gap in labor productivity, with women-run businesses being about 11% less productive than men-run businesses. In many African countries, women farmers have lower productivity due to less access to productive resources such as fertilizer and seeds.

COVID-19 has exacerbated these gaps. Women-owned and -led micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) have been more severely affected than men-led enterprises. Moreover, they were less likely to have received some form of public support although they have been hit harder. Despite the challenges, women-led businesses are responding to the COVID-19 crisis with resilience and innovation. A survey of 40,000 firms in low and middle-income countries found that women-led small and microbusinesses were much more likely to increase the use of digital platforms compared to those led by men, even though they were less likely to invest in software, equipment, or digital solutions. 

Closing these gaps will be key to a prosperous, green, and resilient future. On average across countries, long-run GDP per capita would be almost 20% higher if gender employment gaps were closed. Overcoming occupational segregation helps increase sustainable growth by increasing productivity and facilitating green transition across sectors.

The green transition is strengthening demand for STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – skills, and creating opportunities in traditionally male-dominated sectors.  Policies are needed now to ensure women have opportunities to access in-demand and higher paying STEM-oriented careers.  Women in low-income countries are 7 percentage points less likely than men to enroll in tertiary programs in engineering, manufacturing, and construction. In upper-middle and high-income countries, this is 15 and 17 percentage points, respectively.

Although a stubborn challenge, the WBG has made great strides in understanding and testing policy solutions to address constraints to female labor force participation, earnings, and productivity. The WBG is in a strong position to support client countries to accelerate progress through relatively small investments that yield considerable dividends, even in FCV settings. The graduation approach, which builds on existing social protection programs to add assets, community support, and skills training to cash transfers, has proven successful across different countries and cultures, including promising results in FCV settings.

Care

Women spend three times longer on unpaid care work than men, devoting 1 to 5 hours more a day to unpaid domestic work, childcare, and other family care work. Caregiving responsibilities have increased during COVID-19, brought about by the closure of schools; the confinement of the elderly, children, and adults; and the growing number of ill family members. Data from The Future of Business Survey conducted in late October 2020 show that 18% of female business leaders reported spending six or more hours on domestic tasks, compared to 10% of male business leaders. Additionally, a recent World Bank paper suggests that female-led firms were, on average, 4 percentage points more likely to close their businesses, mainly due to school closures, and experienced larger revenue declines than male-led firms during this crisis.

This increase in care burden did not affect women’s employment only, but also adolescent girls’ education.  In 46 countries worldwide, 63% of girls, compared to 43% of boys, reported an increase in household chores related to COVID-19. One in five girls reported having too many chores to be able to learn, double the proportion of boys.

Investments in care services can yield multi-generational impacts by improving women’s economic empowerment, child outcomes, family welfare, business productivity, and overall economic growth. Expanding access to quality, affordable childcare is among the most important investments that countries can make to build human capital and accelerate equality. For women, access to childcare can enable mothers to participate in the labor market, increase hours, productivity and earnings and improve the quality of work. For children, quality childcare can provide the critical inputs needed during the early years to build the foundational skills that will help them succeed in school and throughout life.

Investments in childcare are key to support an inclusive COVID-19 recovery, enabling parents to return to work, supporting the most vulnerable children with quality care, and as a source of job creation itself. A recent World Bank report suggests that expanding the childcare economy and building the childcare workforce itself could create up to 43 million new jobs while facilitating more people – particularly women – to be able to seek or return to employment.  Improving employment opportunities for women will require robust public policies; programs, including investments in the care economy; as well as a strong engagement of the private sector.  

Gender-based Violence (GBV)

Gender-based violence (GBV) affects about 1 in 3 women over the course of a lifetime. Violence against women and girls has a significant toll on not just their wellbeing, but also on their families across generations and societies more broadly. In some countries, violence against women is estimated to cost countries up to 3.7% of their GDP, which is expected to increase during the pandemic. Still, 30 countries do not have laws specifically addressing domestic violence, and 46 countries lack robust laws that prohibit and punish cases of sexual harassment in employment.     

Lockdowns and reduced mobility due to COVID-10 led to sharp increases in GBV – many countries have reported substantial increases in emergency calls for domestic violence. Many are also experiencing decreased access to services, including crisis centers, shelters, legal aid, and protection services. For instance, there has been a surge in calls to GBV hotlines/helplines in many countries across regions, ranging from a 40% increase in Malaysia to 400% in Tunisia. In Indonesia, 83% of respondents to a phone survey reported increases in intimate partner violence in their communities, and in India, an online survey demonstrated a rise in domestic violence during the early stages of lockdown due to intra-household tensions. Restrictions in movement and limited access to information have put women and girls at increased risk. In Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Indonesia, for example, survivors faced challenges in accessing shelters, helplines, psycho-social services due to operational disruptions, resource shortage, and/or fear of health risks.

GBV intersects with various fronts of gender inequalities and requires a multi-sectoral approach. The World Bank (WB) is increasingly invested in GBV prevention and response though operations in all sectors across regions through helping countries to provide services, create safe environments, promote positive transformation of attitudes, and empower women and girls.  

Assets / Financial / Digital

Assets

According to the World Bank Group’s WBL 202240% of countries worldwide limit women’s property rights. In 19 countries, women do not have equal ownership rights to immovable property. In 43 countries, male and female surviving spouses do not have equal rights to inherit assets, and 42 economies prevent daughters from inheriting in the same way as sons. In 18 economies, the husband has administrative control over marital assets.

But the evidence shows that property rights are the key to economic development. Countries with more gender egalitarian legal regimes generally have higher levels of property ownership by women. When women have access to assets, communities thrive. It increases their ability to start and grow businesses by giving them the collateral they need to secure credit. It allows them to invest in their families, changing outcomes for their children. Perhaps most importantly, it ensures that they can live with agency and dignity. 

Financial and digital services

Women globally are 9% less likely to have an account with a financial institution or mobile banking than men, and the gap is larger in poorer countries. Some research suggests that digital financial services can improve women’s economic participation and, therefore, facilitate economic development. Compared to cash, digital financial services offer several potential benefits to women, including greater financial control, security, and lower transaction costs. These benefits can make it easier for women to invest in businesses, get jobs, and manage financial risk. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimates a $1.5 trillion annual credit deficit for women-owned small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs).

Women are less likely to get access to financial services, such as credit and equity financing; savings; and insurance around the world. There is evidence that the gender gaps are larger for middle-sized firms, which are too big for microfinance institutions and too small for riskier products offered by banks, venture capitalists, and private equity firms. Study estimates indicate a finance gap of $173 billion for women-owned microenterprises (24% of the microenterprise finance gap), and of $1.5 trillion for women-owned SMEs (33% of the SME finance gap). Given that women are less likely than men to own property in several regions of the world, they are more constrained by collateral requirements. This could be compounded by discriminatory practices against women-led businesses by male investors who make most large funding decisions in equity financing.

In low- and-middle-income countries, fewer women have access to the internet and to mobile phones. Even before the pandemic, women in low- and middle-income countries were 8% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. And 300 million fewer women than men use mobile internet, representing a gender gap of 20%. These constraints can prevent women from reaping the benefits of new opportunities in services and trade, including digital platforms and e-commerce.

ID / Law

Identification

Without gender equality in access to identification, governments will struggle to ensure universal access to basic services, economic opportunities, and fulfillment of rights and protections; and to empower women to participate fully in the digital economy. WBL data from 2020 show that in 9 countries, women cannot obtain a national ID card in the same way as men. The 2017 Global Findex survey found that 45% of women in low-income countries (LICs) do not have an ID compared to 30% of men.  

Laws and regulations

Countries are inching toward greater gender equality, yet women around the world continue to face restrictions on their economic opportunity because of discriminatory laws and regulations. On average, women have just three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men. Women were already at a disadvantage before the COVID-19 pandemic. Reforms to remove obstacles to women’s economic inclusion have been slow and uneven among regions. In 2021, 23 economies enacted reforms across all areas and increased good practices in legislation, with the greatest number of reforms introducing or amending laws affecting pay and parenthood. Accelerating progress towards legal gender equality is key for a successful economic recovery. More gender equal laws have been linked to higher female labor force participation, a smaller wage gap between men and women and better development outcomes, such as women’s health and education.

Gender and Climate

The WBG is helping governments, development practitioners, donors, and beneficiaries identify and seize opportunities that leverage gender analysis to make climate action more effective and inclusive. Reaching the full potential of green, resilient, and inclusive development requires that women are able to participate in the economy and public life on an equal basis with men. Women’s empowerment, leadership, and decision-making in climate action is associated with better resource governance, conservation outcomes, and disaster readiness. Failing to take into consideration the differences between men and women and the structural and behavioral barriers that impede the participation of women can constrain the effectiveness of climate interventions even before they begin.

The WBG is also ramping up efforts to close gender gaps in access to “new economy” jobs in renewables, climate-friendly construction, and adaptation; fostering full participation of women in benefits from digitalization (e.g. using digital government-to-person platforms to accelerate closing the gender digital divide); fostering women’s leadership in crisis preparedness, early response and recovery mechanisms, and infrastructure governance; and in investment in high-quality jobs and entrepreneurship for women in renewables.

Forced Displacement

Gender-related constraints and barriers are often amplified in situations of forced displacement. Global evidence suggests that displaced women face a lack of access to crucial services including sexual and reproductive health services, mental health support, continued education and skills training, and services needed after experiencing GBV.

Recent analysis shows that gender gaps among displaced persons are greatest for employment, with rates for displaced men at least 90% higher than for displaced women, peaking at 150% in Nigeria where approximately 36% of displaced men are employed compared to about 15% of displaced women. This reflects broader labor market segregation by gender around the world, compounded by language barriers, lower literacy rates, unpaid care responsibilities, and gender norms that limit refugee women’s prospects.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is also higher among displaced women compared to women in the host population. In Somalia, host women experienced IPV at a rate nearly 30% lower than displaced women (26% vs 36%). In South Sudan, nearly half (47%) of displaced women have experienced IPV in the past year – a number nearly double the national estimate of 27% and quadruple the global average of about 12%. In Colombia and Liberia, women who experienced forced displacement or proximity to a conflict death were between 40-55% more likely to experience violence in their lifetime.  In the case of Colombia, the violence for forcibly displaced women is more severe, often leading to injury.

COVID-19 RESPONSE

COVID-19 has added a new lens on the WBG’s work in gender.  The WBG supported countries to address the immediate health crisis and its corresponding social and economic impacts, and is supporting efforts to rebuild economies that are more inclusive and resilient to future shocks.  The pandemic impacted women and girls disproportionally.

Women entrepreneurs around the world have been deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) is supporting these women not just to survive the crisis, but to thrive with greater long-term resilience. The initiative has invested in the design and evaluation of interventions that address the differential constraints of women entrepreneurs, including an improved enabling environment. By working to improve women’s access to finance, markets, networks, and information, We-Fi is helping them fulfill their potential and become engines of economic growth and job creation.  By December 2021, We-Fi projects directly supported 11,000 women-led enterprises in more than 55 countries with more than 247 partners. The initiative expects to reach directly or indirectly 200,000 women SMEs.

Similarly, the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility (WEOF) aims to help expand access to capital for women entrepreneurs and demonstrate the commercial viability of investing in women. WEOF offers funding for blended finance, advisory services, and market research to catalyze financial services to women SMEs. By 2022, the initiative has financed 144,000 women entrepreneurs. In Zambia, the Bank is ensuring the continuity of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health and nutrition services. In Cambodia, the Bank is improving the availability of services that are critical to preventing mortality among women; this includes better access to family planning, reduction of teen pregnancies, and effective screening and treatment for cervical cancer.

The Bank is helping women return to economic activity, including through cash-for-work programs, expanded childcare support, agricultural inputs, and better access to credit and liquidity for women-led firms.

In AfghanistanMauritaniaMozambique, and Togo, the Bank is providing cash transfers through mobile payments to address lower incomes and bank account ownership among women. In Nepal, the Bank is promoting entrepreneurial business development skills for women and providing them with better farm equipment. 

The Sri Lanka COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project has been supporting the government’s ‘test, track, isolate, and treat’ strategy to control the pandemic by providing a steady supply of essential medical necessities, testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE), supporting contact tracing efforts, and maintaining 32 quarantine centers. It is also working to strengthen the health system to better manage health emergencies in future.  In particular, the project is strengthening mental health services and services for survivors of GBV at the community level especially during emergency situations.

Last Updated: Oct 11, 2022

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