Journal Issue

Bringing Women into the Economic Mainstream

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 1989
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Guidelines for policymakers and development institutions

If policymakers hope to make faster progress in improving economic performance, reducing poverty, slowing down population growth, and stopping environmental degradation, they will have to go much further in their efforts to involve women in economic development.

Women actually contribute more in economic terms than is usually recognized. They account for over half the food produced in the developing world, and even more in Africa; they constitute one fourth of the developing world’s industrial labor force; they carry the main responsibility for childcare and household chores; they head one fourth or more of the families in many developing nations; and they usually fetch most of the household’s water and fuelwood.

Yet their contribution goes drastically underestimated, partly because women’s work often “does not count,” and partly because much of it is home-based. Unpriced, it is hard to value, and being often immediately consumed, it quickly ceases to be visible. Studies in Nepal and the Philippines suggest that when the production of rural women is valued properly, on average they actually contribute about one half of the family’s income. If policymakers do not realize the extent of women’s current contribution, they may also underestimate women’s potential.

Women—particularly the poor—could contribute far more to their own welfare and to the economy if their opportunities to do so were not so confined. The poor, male or female, suffer from limited access to education and health care, information and technology, credit and resources, even markets. But women also face additional gender-related difficulties rooted in tradition—sometimes codified into law and policy—and biology (the demands of multiple pregnancies and the need to care for young children). While men normally go into the “outside” world, women often lack not only the chance to move “outside,” but the resources and information to function at full effectiveness “inside”—at home.

Economic development brings with it the promise that some women will be able to earn more, learn more, and secure better health for themselves and their families. But some women—especially the poor, who lack land or training for modern work—may well be left behind. Unfortunately, present markets cannot be relied upon to rectify matters. Economic theory demonstrates that markets will maximize output for given inputs if, but only if, economic agents have full access to information and resources, enabling them to respond to market signals quickly and effectively. But women often cannot respond well because of gender-related constraints, and this causes an economic loss. Economic productivity—and women’s welfare—can be improved, therefore, through a deliberate effort to open up access, giving women a more equal chance to compete in economic markets. This does not necessarily mean designing “women only” programs; rather, it usually involves bringing women into the mainstream of development programs.

The challenge thus becomes how to include women more effectively in development activities, a challenge that was first taken up by the United Nations during the UN Decade for Women (1975–85). Much work was done to assess women’s situations and develop useful programs, at least on a pilot basis. Some progress was made, particularly in education and the workforce. But the mid- 1980s saw most women, especially in poorer countries, continuing to lag significantly behind men.

In 1987, the World Bank decided the time had come to take greater initiative in this area. The analytical base needed to guide policy and programs was thin. There were many small-scale programs, but few large- scale successes that had demonstrably helped women and accomplished more for development objectives as a result. The Bank began by intensifying its efforts to assist women through its lending operations. It also prepared an initial set of operational guidelines, aimed primarily at Bank staff but for use by governments, nongovernmental agencies, and donor groups, as well. The guidelines raise key issues in several sectors and suggest promising approaches—essentially a “first aid” kit, to be augmented by more detailed sector-by-sector “how to” guidelines. They are already being put to use: during the past year, country departments have drafted women-in-development assessments (with action plans) for some 23 nations, and about one fifth of Bank projects now underway include some measures directed specifically at women (see box).

Getting started

Perhaps the main approach of the Bank’s operational guidelines is to avoid letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; that is, we now know enough to accomplish a good deal. Some idea of the specific situation of women in the country concerned (and the underlying explanations) can be developed by gathering basic gender-disaggregated data, reviewing research, and assessing program and project experience. In general, such information can provide a clear enough picture to pave the way for action.

Next, be selective. It is not necessary to wait until the capacity or the commitment exists to do everything. Just addressing two or three related issues or sectors often proves useful by demonstrating the feasibility, acceptability, and benefits for economic development of efforts to include women. It is often quite possible, for example, to make productive inputs, credit, and information more readily available to women farmers and rural or urban entrepreneurs, to expand or improve education at primary and secondary levels, and to strengthen local maternal health and family planning services, at modest cost but with considerable impact. This may require (1) bringing services physically closer to women; (2) involving women more in the design, management, and delivery of services; and (3) strengthening and working with women’s groups as contact points and to give women greater influence. It is important to test such efforts carefully to build up experience.

But little will be achieved without strong government backing, given the sensitivity of the topic. Sustainable efforts require continual official support from finance and line ministries, as well as institutions specifically dealing with women. The sine qua non for such support is to demonstrate that efforts to assist women are more effective and affordable than continued neglect. The benefits to society must be sufficiently evident to justify any drain on the treasury.

The Bank has decided to concentrate its efforts to improve women’s productive and earning capacity in two areas at this stage: investments in human capital (notably education, health, and family planning); and investments in agricultural extension, credit, and other measures that equip women more immediately to boost productivity and increase earnings. Some of these areas are better understood than others, but enough information exists to justify far more ambitious action.

Education. In most developing countries, women and girls still generally receive less education and training than men and boys, even though women’s education typically pays off in similar wage increases and actually has greater impact on family health and family size. In Africa, the Near East, and South Asia, enrollments for boys in later primary and secondary levels generally far exceed those for girls. And in some regions, even early primary enrollment rates are far lower for girls.

Since education is probably the single most important way to enable women to break out of old molds and increase their options, why do parents invest less in their daughters’ education? The answer seems to lie in knowing who pays and who benefits. Parents pay for much of their children’s education, even where education is supposedly free. They often have to buy books, clothing, and other supplies. They also lose some of their children’s (especially girls’) household chore time, which may be neglected in rate-of-return calculations. But the benefits accrue mainly to the children, or the children’s offspring, a distant prospect for parents faced with immediate costs, particularly if the daughters “marry out.”

Thus the social returns to female education—notably better health for future generations and slower population growth—far exceed the private benefits to the parents who pay, creating a strong case for special measures, including subsidies. Most developing countries, however, are already strapped for resources, with populations, in many places, continuing to double every generation. As a practical matter, if education is to reach everyone, programs must be designed to encourage parents to help share the costs. Since many parents are less willing to educate daughters, it is important to understand what influences their views. Initial research shows that parents’ willingness to pay depends in good part on the quality of education and on its sensitivity to cultural requirements for girls.

Some recent Bank projects addressing women in development

Morocco: rural primary education. This $83 million IBRD project supports the Government’s efforts to expand and improve primary education in rural areas, by building schools, promoting girls’ attendance, and introducing various incentives such as preferential housing for female teachers and cheaper textbooks. The goal is to increase girls’ attendance in rural primary schools by 75 percent.

India: safer motherhood in Bombay and Madras. This $57 million IDA project supports affordable family welfare services in poor communities, helping 1.6 million women and 0.9 million children. Measures include better family planning and prenatal care, identification of high risk pregnancies, more birth and health facilities, and immunization for mothers and children.

Nigeria: agricultural development. Designed to strengthen agricultural support services and rural infrastructure, this $85.2 million IBRD project provides direct help to women in three states. Among other measures, agricultural extensionists will address technical needs of women farmers, the number of female extension agents will be increased, and access to credit will be improved.

Rwanda: agricultural services. This $19.9 million IDA project aims to strengthen research and extension services and promotes private sector participation in agricultural marketing. Extension agents will be sensitized to women’s needs, and women’s groups will serve as contact points.

Gambia: enterprise development. This $10 million IDA project addresses constraints women entrepreneurs face, providing training in business finance, project preparation, and appraisal techniques. Support will be given to the Gambian Women’s Finance Company, for a loan guarantee fund.

Mexico: women, water, and development. This $20 million IBRD project, developed as a result of grassroots meetings, will combine water supply and sanitation facilities with lines of credit for income-generating activities that focus on women. These include fish fanning, manufacturing women’s clothing, and poultry raising.

There are many ways to improve and expand school systems, both to take advantage of existing parental demand and to gradually build further interest. Providing schools closer to home would answer parental concerns about their daughters’ safety and scarce, costly transportation. In fact, local “one-room” school houses may be more effective for all children than larger, better equipped, but more distant schools. Other helpful measures, which need further testing, include hiring and training more female teachers; providing girls and women with adequate privacy (e.g., separate lavatories); establishing single-sex schools; adjusting schedules, especially in rural areas; changing the curriculum to make it more relevant to local production activities, family welfare, and income-earning capacity; removing gender bias in books; getting teachers to encourage girls to stay in school; and helping young women enter the labor force.

Health and family planning. In some regions, girls often receive less food and health care and face sharply higher rates of mortality, morbidity, and malnutrition. Among women of childbearing age, maternal mortality still accounts for more than one fourth of all deaths in many countries; and many women still lack regular and convenient access to the various family planning services needed to delay the onset of pregnancy, promote the healthy spacing of children, and help older women to stop bearing children. Many women still remain anemic and subject to other nutritional stress, particularly during their childbearing years (see “Maternal Health and Development,” by Barbara Herz and Anthony Measham, Finance & Development, June 1987).

The recently begun “International Safe Motherhood Initiative” holds the promise of bringing swift, substantial results, along with helping efforts to deal with malnutrition, infectious diseases, other broad health concerns, and population growth. It is aimed at providing better prenatal care, improved screening of pregnant women to identify more of those likely to face severe problems, more effective help with delivery, and enhanced family planning services. Current evidence, though limited, suggests it is possible to identify the one fourth or so of pregnant women who will have about three fourths of the life-threatening complications of pregnancy. Research demonstrates that if women who no longer want children avoided pregnancy through family planning, from one fourth to one half of all maternal deaths could be avoided in many countries. And where effective and affordable family planning services are provided, in many countries one third to two thirds of couples choose to use them. Of course, both men and women ought to have access to family planning services and information.

To provide the necessary preventive, routine, and backup care, a three-pronged approach is required:

  • Stronger community-based health. This relies on non-physician health workers (often women) drawn from the local community to screen pregnant women, identify those at high risk, and refer them for help; provide good prenatal care and ensure safe delivery for women at less risk; provide family life education, temporary family planning services, and referral to clinics; and promote better family health and nutrition.
  • Stronger referral or backup facilities—hospitals and health centers with beds—to act as a backup network, take better care of complicated pregnancies and obstetrical emergencies, and provide clinical and surgical methods of family planning.
  • An “alarm and transport” system to quickly transfer women with high risk pregnancies or emergencies from their homes to referral facilities. These maternal health and family planning services would normally be built into government or other programs of primary health care. Research is underway to refine the types of interventions that will be most cost-effective, considering variations in social and economic circumstances, the education of both spouses, and the physical environment.

Agricultural extension. Many women farmers, particularly in Africa, manage much of the land they farm. In most regions, women also take responsibility for such key tasks as transplanting, weeding, and post- harvest processing. Programs to supply agricultural extension and credit are typically undertaken when existing factor markets provide inadequate information and capital. But as designed, these programs often fail to reach women. Even when women are involved in major cash or food crops, agricultural extension programs may focus on male farmers, assuming that men will pass information along to their wives. Studies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, however, show that such transmission of information is often poor. Yet evidence suggests that women farm as well as men when given similar access to land, inputs, education, and training.

In delivering extension services to women, several key points include:

  • It is probably more sensible to adjust the existing system to reach both female and male farmers than to establish a separate extension system for women farmers. In this regard, a few Bank operations, particularly in Africa, are breaking new ground.
  • Women farmers are not homogeneous. Thus, it should be asked what activities the main groups of women farmers focus on, whether current extension services cover only “main crops” or cash crops, and whether extension advice should be adjusted to cover other crops, animals, or tasks.
  • Considering the position of various groups of women in the family, society, and economy, delivery must concentrate on extending advice affordably and effectively to both male and female farmers. This may mean involving women in the delivery of extension services and using women’s groups as contact points.
  • Efforts should be made to ensure feedback from women farmers through the extension system to researchers.
  • The likely financial and administrative costs and impact of extension should be weighed, considering how this varies by social and economic background, education, farm size, and income level. Again, evidence suggests that adjustments to reach women can be cost-effective.

Credit. One way to improve rural or urban women’s productivity and income may be to provide them with credit. Women face special barriers, not least because credit institutions typically require collateral, and in most developing countries men often hold legal title to land and other assets. Moreover, women may have more difficulty than men traveling and handling financial arrangements, because of earlier deficits in education and “home- bound” traditions.

Analysis in this field is at an earlier stage than in the others, but already a few promising approaches are being recognized:

  • Provide credit in small quantities for relatively short terms (perhaps a year) for a productive activity chosen by the borrower, with gradual payback in small amounts at frequent intervals.
  • Improve access to credit by creating more branches of lending institutions and advertising the availability of credit for women.
  • Provide training for and administrative support to women in accounting and economic planning, and minimize bureaucratic requirements.
  • Encourage “solidarity groups” of women to work together, perhaps borrowing collectively or serially, with the goal of providing mutual support, encouragement, and collective judgment.
  • Move away from asset-based collateral toward more innovative approaches, including group guarantees.
  • Lend for activities that generate cash income.

Other economic benefits

Besides contributing to higher economic productivity and improved health and family planning, investing in women also holds implications for several other areas of keen interest to the Bank.

Women, population, and environment. Poverty itself threatens the environment, through the decisions of millions of people too poor to take a long-run view of the optimal use of scarce natural resources. Assistance to poor women may directly improve the use of these resources. Women fanners, for example, are more likely to lack alternatives to outmoded agricultural technologies that may degrade the land as population density increases. And women often lack alternatives to wood as household fuel. Agricultural extension, credit, and forestry programs can all help in this regard.

At the same time, the side effects of economic growth—global warming, pollution, and crowding—are a cause for great concern. Environmental damage may be reversible if enough human ingenuity and financial resources can be brought to bear. But as a practical matter, it is risky to count on either, especially considering how high the stakes are. Ultimately, environmental protection may well require limiting the growth of the human population, as well as instituting environmentally sound economic policies. To date, the most effective way to slow population growth is by providing women with better education and improved earning opportunities, while offering more couples family planning information and services.

Adjustment and poverty. In this area, the fundamental task is to switch labor and resources from less productive to more productive lines of work. The Bank’s women- in-development strategy emphasizes the types of investments (education, health/family planning, credit, extension) that can help women make this switch faster and more effectively. In the meantime, special efforts may be needed to tide over the poorest women until they can produce and earn more. We are beginning to see adjustment operations take more explicit account of women, and some of our research is helping, but much remains to be done.


Thus concern for women in development makes sense not simply on equity or political grounds, but for economic reasons. As stated earlier, women contribute substantially to economic growth, helping make headway in reducing poverty, improving family welfare, slowing down population growth, and saving the environment. Expanding women’s choices in economic activity—through improved technologies, increased options for “inside” activities, and a greater ability to move “outside”—raises the possibility of higher output and income, enabling women to find their true comparative advantage. Evidence suggests that efforts to improve opportunities for women can be cost-effective, but it will be important to refine and test innovative approaches, expanding into more countries and a greater number of fields.

Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth

This most ambitious examination of Sub-Saharan Africa yet published by the World Bank takes a long-term view, backward and forward, of development efforts in the region. Among the key questions addressed: how have economies evolved since independence? what basic lessons have been learned? what are the prospects for the next generation? Policies outlined in this study should dominate the debate on development strategies for the region for the next decade. Includes a comprehensive statistical appendix of 38 key indicators of development.

African Economic and Financial Data

This volume brings together a wide range of data on Africa’s economic performance and financial flows for 1980-87 to allow easy monitoring of development programs and aid flows in the region. Most tables are arranged as time series, by country, and by country groups. Data are arranged by indicator to allow for cross-country comparisons.

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