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The World Bank and Gender

The World Bank and Gender


In September 2011, the World Bank launched the World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development (WDR 2012), the first of the series to focus on gender. WDR 2012 highlighted impressive progress in educational enrollment, life expectancy, and economic opportunities, but also pointed out that these gains have not been universal. In many parts of the world, too many women are still dying in child-birth, or, at alarming rates, not being born at all. Women continue to lack voice in the household and the ability to participate in decisions that affect them, their families, and their societies; and too often, their economic opportunities remain very constrained.

Full Brief—6 pages
The World Bank and Gender
—PDF, May 2012


The WDR 2012 drew attention to the fact that there are still 35 million girls out of school; nearly 4 million "missing" women, annually (meaning the number of women in low- and middle-income countries who die relative to their counterparts in high-income countries); average wage gaps of 20 percent, along with gaps in labor force participation; and, 510 million women who will be abused by their partner in their lifetime.

These issues matter intrinsically. What's more, addressing them is the smart thing to do, because inequality is costly, and increasingly so in a globalizing world. Disparities in gender equality come with economic costs, shortchange the next generation, and lead to suboptimal institutions and policies. Studies show that progress in this area benefits everyone, not just women and girls.


The World Bank Group (WBG) promotes gender equality in developing countries through lending, grants, knowledge, analysis and policy dialogue. The Bank is committed to ensure good levels of gender mainstreaming in its operations, and that all Country Assistance Strategies are gender informed. (Gender-informed operations systematically consider gender inequalities and try to address them in design, implementation, expected impact and monitoring).

The World Bank Group has focused on gender since 1977, when it appointed its first Women in Development Adviser. In 1995, then-President Jim Wolfensohn chose to give his first major speech at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, proposing universal primary education for girls and boys by 2010. The Bank adopted a mainstreaming strategy in 2001, while at the same time adopting an operational policy and publishing the pioneering Policy Research Report "Engendering Development," all of which helped set the stage for the 2007 launch of the Gender Action Plan (GAP).

The Gender Action Plan (2007-2011) boosted the Bank's support to women and girls in the traditionally difficult-to-mainstream economic sectors, using pilots to increase visibility and yield results in the short term. The plan's clear message, "Gender Equality as Smart Economics" built on the World Bank's comparative advantage and helped gain broad-based support. World Bank staff who had never worked on gender were encouraged to integrate gender into their projects, which in turn contributed to the evidence base of innovations, impact evaluations, research and data.

In April 2008, World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick announced six new commitments on gender equality -- including, for example, better integration of gender equality into agriculture and rural development projects; channeling, through the International Finance Corporation, credit lines at commercial banks for women entrepreneurs; the creation of a Private Sector Leaders' Forum; and an increase in International Development Association (IDA) investments for gender equality. The heightened attention from the Gender Action Plan and the presidential commitments on gender equality contributed to a higher profile for gender and two major steps forward.

First, gender was identified as a special theme of the World Bank's fund for the poorest, the International Development Association (IDA), for its 16th replenishment (2011–2014). The fund totals US$49.3 billion for this replenishment period. This designation requires IDA to put more emphasis on and funding into gender-related projects where it is needed most, and to monitor specific gender-related deliverables in these countries over the three-year period.

Second, in September 2011, the World Bank launched the World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development, the first of the series to tackle gender. It provides a baseline for work on gender equality going forward, and identifies areas where policy interventions, not just higher incomes, are needed to help close persistent gender gaps.



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 the poor and disadvantaged. In poorer households, for instance, lower quantity and quality of education are often greater obstacles for girls than boys. As part of the IDA16 commitments, the World Bank's new Education Strategy lays out a ten-year agenda focused on the crucial goal of "learning for all." The bottom line: Invest early, invest smartly, and invest for all. The strategy draws on consultations with governments, development partners, students, teachers, researchers, civil society, and business representatives from more than 100 countries.

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. In a striking reversal of historical patterns, women's worldwide enrollment in tertiary education has in-creased sevenfold since 1970 (compared to fourfold for men); in fact, more women than men now attend university. 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.

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, more than 400,000 eligible girls receive 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. This is in a broader context where the primary net enrollment rate increased from 50 percent to 54 percent since 2007 and the ratio of female-male primary net enrollment rose in rural areas from 61 percent to 76 percent.

With financing from IDA, the Basic Education Development Program aims to increase school enrollment in Yemen, with a particular focus on gender equality in impoverished districts, and improve the quality of teaching. As of 2009, the project had built almost 4,000 classrooms and trained over 90,000 teachers. To close the gender gap in education, the project has provided conditional cash transfers to more than 30,000 girls from the most underprivileged rural households, starting in 2007. It has also focused on recruiting and training female teachers to make girls' education more culturally acceptable. The gross primary school enrollment rate in the country rose from 68 percent to 87 percent over the period 1999–2009, with larger gains for girls than for boys. This improvement in overall basic education also contributed to a considerable rise in girls' grade 6 completion rate, from 38 percent in 2001 to 51 percent in 2009.


Healthy Development: The World Bank Strategy for Health, Nutrition, and Population Results and the 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-sectoral investments to improve reproductive health outcomes.

The multi-country HIV/AIDS program operations in Africa have focused particular attention on addressing gender dynamics in its response to the pandemic, with operations in a series of countries. In Chad, IDA funds a project to reduce the transmission and socioeconomic impact of HIV/AIDS by supporting education and income-generating activities for women. In Rwanda, IDA has financed rural access to AIDS care and some 5,000 poor patients, mainly women, benefit from antiretroviral therapy, around 60 percent of those in need. In Africa, IDA has financed services to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission for more than 1.5 million women, and helped distribute 1.3 billion male condoms and 4 million female condoms. IDA has also supported innovative reproductive health and family planning programs in high-fertility countries, although this is an area where more work is needed.

Agriculture and Rural Development

IDA investments and collaboration with governments enable women to access land and secure tenure rights. An IDA-financed pilot project in north central Vietnam has instituted an approach to land titling that gives both women and men rights to use land. As Vietnam transitions from collectives to smaller family farms, this land-titling project has increased opportunities for women to use their most productive asset -- their land -- to generate income. Similarly, in Ethiopia, the World Bank is supporting the US$20 million Sustainable Land Management Project (2008-2013), a nationwide program that includes efforts to expand land-registration and certification. The project is partly the result of a Gender Action Plan-funded study of an Ethiopian program that issued 20 million land use certificates to about 6 million households.

The study found evidence that issuing land certificates had a positive impact for women and on land productivity. Merely by providing space for both spouses' pictures on the certificate, women's registration for land ownership jointly with men increased significantly. Almost all women respondents with joint certificates reported having improved their economic and social status. More than 80 percent of respondents indicated that the certification reduced conflicts and encouraged them to plant trees and lease out their land.

Economic Empowerment

The World Bank, along with local partners in Tanzania, is implementing an innovative pilot in Dar es Salaam to support women micro-entrepreneurs who are committed to strengthen and grow their business. This is a business incubator (called MKUBWA, which means 'BIG' in Kiswahili) that provides a flexible package of services, including training and advanced business development services, individual coaching and mentoring, and sector-specific product design and development. This 'light' incubator, which assists women entrepreneurs at their workplace, entails lower costs, increased flexibility, and higher effectiveness in promoting market exposure.

Out of 3,500 initial applicants for the program, 550 women entrepreneurs were selected in 2010 to receive training and business development services from MKUBWA in textile and tailoring, handicraft, processing, poultry, trade and service. The training provided helps the women beneficiaries increase the quality of their products, improve the management of their businesses, create new networks, and access new markets. A rigorous impact evaluation to be carried out in 2012 will assess how this program has changed business outcomes and the life of these women and their households.

In South Sudan, a Private Sector Development Plan (2007-2011) seeks to develop an enabling environment for the private sector. The World Bank's Gender Action Plan added funding to strengthen women's entrepreneurship. The project launched a Business Plan Competition that drew more than 1,600 applications from across all southern states. Twenty-five female entrepreneurs (out of 45 awarded proposals) were awarded US$20,000 each through a commercial bank to use as collateral. The project has also channeled US$500,000 to local microfinance service providers to extend loans to women. The project provides technical assistance to women clients and collects sex-disaggregated information for monitoring and evaluation. It will also offer gender training to local project staff on how to design and use gender-sensitive monitoring.


In drought-stricken Kenya, the Water and Sanitation Service Improvement Project (2007-2012) financed by IDA and with a financial contribution from the Bank's Gender Action Plan, seeks to improve women's water access. The Water and Irrigation Ministry held training sessions for newly appointed gender focal points from eight regions to impart a gender-mainstreaming approach for boosting water access and food security. In addition, Water and Irrigation officials have instituted performance-based contracts to offer incentives and penalties for ministry staff to address gender equality objectives.

In the energy sector, a promising approach to introduce gender-informed design into energy projects is a pilot project in southern Bangladesh to deliver low-cost renewable energy services. The project trained women to manage a cooperatively owned microenterprise that manufactures and sells energy products such as battery-operated lamps, batteries, battery-charging facilities, diesel operated small-scale (micro-grid) electrification, and solar home systems. Within two years, over 1,200 households, shops, and boats started using battery-operated lamps, and 300 business owners were on micro-grid services. These lamps and micro-grid services improved the quality of indoor air and lighting and household and business security, enhanced productivity, and increased incomes by 30 percent. Shops were able to keep longer hours, and children spent more time on schoolwork at home. The project was introduced to other regions in 2002, and lessons from this initiative were incorporated into the Rural and Renewable Electrification Project in Bangladesh (2002-2009), which is jointly funded by IDA and the Global Environment Facility.

Similarly in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the Bank's Gender Action Plan supported the integration of gender considerations in an IDA-funded Rural Electrification Project (2006-2010), which helped increase the connection rate of poor households headed by women.

Fragile and Conflict-Affected States

Under IDA16, there is a commitment to strengthen efforts to integrate a gender perspective into IDA's support for fragile and conflict-affected states.

An example of work in one of these countries, the Addressing Sexual Gender-Based Violence in South Kivu Project aims to improve the provision of services that promote treatment and prevention of gender based violence (GBV) against women and girls in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. The project seeks to contribute to the higher-order objective of mitigating the short-term and medium-term impact of GBV at the individual, family and community level and reduce the vulnerability of women and girls in South Kivu.

The project became effective June 30, 2010, and is financed by the State and Peace Building Fund for a total of US$2 million. The project is targeted at survivors of sexual violence, as well as other women and girls who are deemed vulnerable, including widows, female-heads of households, and teenage mothers. The project will work with 7,000 women and girls, including survivors of sexual violence. Direct services to survivors of GBV will be provided to 4,800 project beneficiaries. In addition, community-based organizations will provide direct support to 2,200 beneficiaries.

Bank Contribution

In fiscal year 2011 alone, (July 2010 to June 2011), just over US$25 billion, or 60 percent of the World Bank's lending and grants, were allocated to gender-informed operations in education, health, access to land, financial and agricultural services, jobs, and infrastructure.

Moving Forward

The WDR 2012 identified the following areas where domestic policy efforts as well as the support of the international community are required, since higher incomes alone will do little to reduce existing gender inequalities:

  • reducing excess deaths of girls and women and eliminating remaining gender disadvantages in education;
  • narrowing disparities between women and men in earnings and productivity;
  • diminishing gender differences in household and societal voice; and
  • limiting the reproduction of gender equality across generations.

In order to operationalize these findings, the World Bank Board of Executive Directors requested, and the Development Committee approved, Implications of World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development for the World Bank Group. The paper outlines the following five strategic directions to increase attention to gender equality, and to provide a framework for the World Bank's work going forward:

  1. informing country policy dialogue;
  2. enhancing country-level gender diagnostics;
  3. scaling up lending for domestic priorities;
  4. increasing the availability of gender-relevant data and statistics; and
  5. leveraging partnerships.

The World Bank is thus now well placed to help accelerate progress on the gender agenda; there is, however, much more to do.

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