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Overview

Protecting and investing in girls, women, and people of all gender identities is necessary for building more green, productive, and inclusive societies. 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.

Over the last decade, since the World Bank Group (WBG) published the World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development, progress has been achieved in several key areas. Maternal mortality has decreased by around 10 percent, and girls’ enrollment in secondary school has increased by 5 percent. The 51 years of Women, Business and the Law (WBL) data show that between 2012 and 2022, the average WBL index score increased 6.4 points, reflecting an improvement in women’s economic rights, and more women than ever before in national parliaments.

However, progress has been slow in many important domains. Female labor force participation rates fall below 40 percent in low- and lower-middle-income countries. Women continue to be responsible for the bulk of child and elder care in the home. They also remain underrepresented as leaders in their communities as well as at the highest levels in the government and private sector. Globally, violence against women and girls remains widespread.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating these gender gaps, reversing decades of gains for women and girls in areas like human capital, economic empowerment, and voice and agency – impacts which threaten to outlast the pandemic. We have an opportunity now to fix the systems, practices, and funding to build a more inclusive recovery. This includes doubling down on efforts around women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship, education for girls, and better access to sexual and reproductive health services.  It also includes addressing gender-based violence (GBV) and its causes, which requires system-wide approaches, and incorporating GBV into health and education responses, promoting economic security to help protect against some forms of violence, and providing services for survivors of GBV.

Gender equality is central to the WBG’s own goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity in a sustainable manner. 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 and drives for transformative change in the future.

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. The pandemic also risks reversing many of these gains. Women are on the frontlines of the health workforce and face more risk of exposure to COVID-19. Women and girls are also experiencing disruptions to reproductive health services in some countries.

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. Sub-Saharan Africans suffer from the highest maternal mortality ratio – 533 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, or 200,000 maternal deaths a year. This is over two-thirds (68%) of all maternal deaths per year worldwide. 

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, with diverse interests, needs, and concerns, there have been concrete improvements in some aspects of adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights. Many adolescents initiate sexual activity later than adolescents in the past. They are less likely to have sex with a partner who they are not married to or living with and more likely to use condoms when they are sexually active. Girls are less likely to be married and to have children before age 18, more likely to use contraception and to obtain maternal health care. They are less likely to experience female genital mutilation, internationally recognized as a human rights violation. 

In spite of greater awareness of the sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents, some key issues have not improved. In many contexts, menstruation is still seen as a taboo topic. Adolescents are the only age group in which HIV-related deaths are not decreasing and from the limited data available, their levels of other sexually transmitted infections are high and growing. A high proportion of adolescent girls have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. There is still a lack of good data on levels of unsafe abortion among adolescents, and the risk of mortality and morbidity resulting from it.

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 contexts affected by fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV). 

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 show 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 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. 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, 84 countries restrict women’s work, for example, at night or in factories and mines.

On average, men are 1.5 times more likely than women to participate in the labor force across the world. This gap widens in South Asia and Middle East & North Africa where men are 3 times more likely to participate in the labor force than women.

Women in all countries face earnings gaps. If women could have the same lifetime earnings as men, global wealth could increase by $172 trillion, and human capital wealth could increase by about one-fifth globally. However, Women, Business and the Law 2022 found that 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. 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. In Ethiopia, for example, women produce 23% less per hectare than men. 

COVID-19 has exacerbated these gaps. Jobs held by women have been lost at a faster rate than jobs held by men, and women-owned and -led micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) have also been more severely affected. According to recent research covering 48 countries, the difference in the rate of work stoppage is 7 percentage points higher for women than for men. Despite the challenges, women-led businesses are responding to the COVID-19 crisis with resilience and innovation. A survey of 45,000 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. 

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 elderly people and the growing numbers of ill family members. Data from surveys conducted in late October 2020 show that 18% of female and 10% of male business leaders spent six or more hours on domestic tasks. Access to good quality, affordable childcare and reliable and safe transportation can improve labor market and other outcomes for women and men. Improving employment opportunities for women involves not only public policies, programs, and investments, but also engaging the private sector.  

Gender-based Violence (GBV)

Gender-based violence affects more than 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 still lack robust laws that prohibit and punish cases of sexual harassment in employment.     

Lockdowns and reduced mobility have 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.

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 and lower transaction costs. These benefits can make it easier for women to invest in businesses, get jobs, and manage financial risk. The IFC estimates a $1.5 trillion annual credit deficit for women-owned small- and medium-enterprises.

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%.  

ID / Law

Identification

In today’s world, 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 shows 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, but women around the world continue to face laws and regulations that restrict their economic opportunity, with the COVID-19 pandemic creating new challenges to their health, safety, and economic security.  Reforms to remove obstacles to women’s economic inclusion have been slow in many regions and uneven within them. On average, women have just three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men. Women were already at a disadvantage before the pandemic, and government initiatives to buffer some of its effects, while innovative, have been limited in many countries. Despite the pandemic, 23 economies enacted reforms across all areas and increased good practices in legislation in 29 cases during the year covered, the greatest number of reforms introduced or amended laws affecting pay and parenthood. 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.

Green, Resilient, and Inclusive Development

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. The WBG is helping governments, development practitioners, donors, and beneficiaries identify and seize opportunities to make climate action more gender inclusive. Gender equality benefits efforts in areas such as sustainable forest management and compensating countries for their efforts to preserve forests and reduce emissions. For example, research has found that forest-related programs that include women in their design and implementation are more effective. Failing to take into consideration the differences between men and women and the structural and behavioral barriers that impede the participation of women can stunt these programs 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 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 is supporting countries to address the immediate health crisis and its corresponding social and economic impacts, as well as to rebuild economies that are more inclusive and resilient to future shocks.  While male mortality has been higher and there are risks of both boys and girls not returning to schools after lockdowns end, the pandemic impacts women and girls disproportionally because of: 

  • disruptions in key health services, including reproductive, adolescent, and maternal health; 
  • greater exposure to contagion and mental health stress as women are overrepresented in the health sector and are more likely to be caregivers; 
  • jobs held by women have been lost at a faster rate than jobs held by men, and women-owned and -led micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are also more severely affected; 
  • increased domestic work and care responsibilities; 
  • inadequate social safety nets, including for those who are informally employed, where women are over-represented; 
  • gender gaps in access to – and use of – digital technologies; and 
  • sharp increases in gender-based violence (GBV).

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. 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. 

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.

We are 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 is 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 will strengthen mental health services and services for survivors of GBV at the community level especially during emergency situations.

Last Updated: Apr 20, 2022

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