Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality

by Isobel Coleman
September 20, 2011

Kyrgyzstan's President Roza Otunbayeva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, and Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro laugh during a photo opportunity before the start of the "Women's Political Participation - Making Gender Equality in Politics a Reality" event at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 19, 2011 (Jessica Rinaldi/ Courtesy Reuters).

Every year, the World Bank publishes its World Development Report (WDR) focusing on a specific development challenge. In recent years, the WDR has highlighted issues of climate change, agricultural productivity, urbanization, and the inequality of opportunity within and among nations. Yesterday, the Bank published its World Development Report 2012, which focuses on gender equality.

In many ways, the report is relatively upbeat on trends toward gender equality in the world today. In terms of education, girls have made great strides. Gender gaps in primary education are closing in almost every country. Indeed, a reverse gap is emerging, with girls outnumbering boys in secondary schools in 45 countries and women outnumbering men in universities in 60 countries. Women are living longer than men in all parts of the world, and are pouring into the work force as fertility rates decline steadily in many societies.

However, the report notes the deep challenges facing women and girls in parts of the world today. The most alarming statistics are with respect to the roughly 4 million excess deaths of women and girls, relative to males, in low and middle income countries.  40 percent of these “missing girls” are never born: the spread of inexpensive sonogram technology allows parents to abort unwanted female fetuses. Another 17 percent die in early childhood. Some 35 percent die during their reproductive years. Maternal mortality, which takes approximately 1000 female lives a day, is still the top killer of women in many countries. And despite gains in girls’ education, far fewer girls than boys are enrolled in school in many sub-Saharan countries and in parts of South Asia. Women also continue to earn less than men, farm smaller and less productive plots of land, have less say in household decision-making, and participate less in politics.

The WDR acknowledges that while some of the issues facing women are exacerbated by poverty and exclusion, income growth by itself does not mitigate gender inequality across the board. (The incidence of sex-selective abortion, for example, is higher in wealthier areas of India where middle class families feel the economic pressures of dowry and can afford the cost of a sonogram.)  The report, however, puts stock in globalization, including trade openness and the spread of less expensive information and communication technology, to reduce gender disparities by connecting women to markets and opportunities, and by reshaping attitudes.  It also calls for changes in policies to provide women with more access to education, health care (particularly maternal health), property rights, and political quotas.

None of the main points of the report are new, but the WDR 2012 is a useful contribution by the World Bank to take stock of the gains women have made around the world and the challenges they still face. The Bank’s framing of gender equality not only as a development objective in its own right, but also as smart economics, is an important message for those countries that lag the most on gender equality. Just as investing in women and girls can create a positive development cycle, the opposite is also true: countries that fail to empower half their population will suffer from lower productivity, slower economic growth, and weaker development outcomes.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Merrell Tuck

    Great that gender equality is being highlighted by women in leadership positions on the world stage. I hope readers will check out the rich content from the World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.

  • Posted by Frank Lange, Product Owner

    I don’t agree in all parts of your argumentation, but overall it’s a real good article with lots of meaningful thoughts. Best Regards, Frank

  • Posted by Fairtown

    How to get this book?

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Hi Fairtown. The report is available at Many thanks for your interest.

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