World Bank launches “Voice and Agency: Empowering women and girls for shared prosperity”

03 November 2014
Annie Holmes

Voice and Agency: Empowering women and girls for shared prosperity pdf

A high-level panel, including STRIVE research director Charlotte Watts, presented at the launch of this timely and influential report in London on 9 September 2014. An up-to-date and accessible overview, Voice and Agency is an indication that international finance institutions (IFIs) are beginning to recognise and address gender inequality.

A bold new path toward equality, grounded in fundamental human rights and backed by evidence and data, is long overdue. 

Jim Yong Kim President, World Bank Group, Foreword to Voice and Agency.


In London, the report was launched at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Similar launches were held in a number of different countries worldwide to raise awareness within IFIs and a range of related networks. In Washington, DC, the launch featured the Hon. Hillary Clinton.

In London, EBRD Vice President Betsy Nelson introduced the event and the report’s lead author, Jeni Klugman (World Bank Group and Kennedy School of Government’s Women in Public Policy Program) presented the principal findings. The panel was made up of advisors on the report:

  • Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, University of Oxford
  • Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International
  • Liz Ditchburn, Director of Policy, Department for International Development
  • Soha Soliman, Head of SMEs at National Bank of Egypt
  • Charlotte Watts, Professor, Social & Mathematical Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Science
  • Michaela Bergman, the EBRD’s Chief Counsellor for Social Issues and Gender Team head.

The report sheds new light on constraints facing women and girls worldwide, from epidemic levels of gender-based violence to biased laws and norms that prevent them from owning property, working, and making decisions about their own lives. While highlighting gaps, the report also reviews promising policies and interventions, and identifies priority areas where further research and more and better data and evidence are needed."

Event Invitation, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

Presentations by Nelson, Klugman and the panel spotlit key sections and findings in Voice and Agency, throwing in additional challenges to the World Bank, corporations and the private sector, researchers and the field of women’s rights.

Joined up thinking

For Watts and others, the report emphasises the importance of moving beyond issue silos in order to reach an integrated understanding of gender inequality: disadvantages overlap, so we need multidimensional research. The conceptual framing of the new report is valuable in bringing issues of violence, work and representation together in one frame.

As well as integrated analysis, we need joined up programming to meet women’s multiple needs, working across fields such as climate change, schooling and health. When we evaluate interventions, Watts pointed out, we don’t look at violence-against-women-and-girls (VAWG) outcomes in isolation. One in three women experiences violence in her lifetime: we need to identify and use multiple opportunities to prevent VAWG on a wide scale. Entry points include social protection programmes, education, industry and economic development. If the private sector were to add components to business initiatives, multiple benefits would result. Current efforts to improve girls’ education need to be matched by improved work options for women, for example. Limited by laws and norms, women’s employment is falling in some countries.

Women organising 

What works, Winnie Byanyima emphasises, is not only government action (the supply of good policy and programmes) but also, crucially, women’s activism (the demand side of equality, rights and change). The role of grassroots women organising is important in itself as well as instrumentally. Binyanyima applauded the section in the report on women’s collective action: When this is not documented, it is not resourced.

Let’s monitor better what women’s collective action is achieving.” 

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International

Echoing the importance of local voices and grassroots action, audience members underlined the need to tailor effective interventions to specific contexts rather than imposing generic cookie-cutter approaches. Sabina Alkire, focusing on data and research, identified the need for better ways to measure the take up of laws and their effect.

Post MDGs 

Beyond 2015 and the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), a new agenda offers a powerful moment to make a difference. Many participants at the event are involved in the post-MDGs conversation and positive about the framing of universal aspirations. As Byanyima pointed out, gender equality is a global issue, not one limited to a relationship with development. She grew up in a culture where girls were undervalued: her father was happy to have a she-calf but unhappy to have a second daughter. Byanyim assumed it would be better in the “developed” north but there she found herself the only girl in an engineering class of 32. Norms that undervalue women are global – not limited to low-income countries. Nonetheless, it is still important to campaign for a stand-alone goal on gender equality. Integrating equality into all goals is a good idea, Byanyima continuted, but governments’ capacity to tease this out is far from certain.


For STRIVE as for Jim Yong Kim, the report’s emphasis on norms is significant. Laws are important but not sufficient on their own to effect real change. The gathering noted, among other points, that enforcing positive norms is more effective than challenging negative norms. Popular culture has a role to play here: take the example of TV soaps shifting norms on gay rights.

Voice and Agency contains fascinating examples. One survey carried out for the report (see page 162) shows the correlation between numbers of women in the lower House of Parliament and the attitude that men are better political leaders than: as the former increases, the latter is reduced – one instance of the interplay between norms and change.

Work with women and men 

For Liz Ditchburn of DFID, a strong take-home message from the report is the evidence of the need to engage with both women and men. Noting the 80:20 ratio of women to men in the room at the London launch, she cautioned that, while it’s important to work with men, we should not flip and stop working with women.

Research and data

It is not always possible to predict how things will play out and the evidence can be startling and unsettling.

  • Research on VAW and intimate partner violence shows that nowhere is as unsafe for women than their own home.
  • Every day, 40,000 girls aged under 18 marry. But, globally, a girl who graduates high school is 6 x less likely to marry early.

The table below compares the costs of VAW and spending on primary education:


Data not only measures progress, it inspires it.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, launching Voice and Agency in Washington, DC


The ability to collect data needs continual investment, particularly, as Sabina Alkire points out, better gender data. While the report has made the very best use of existing data, Demographic and Health Surveys need to compare men and women in the same household. Without this, it is impossible to measure and compare male/female poverty and therefore we can’t sharpen our understanding of the nexus of gender and poverty.

The future

In 1976, one country criminalised domestic violence (DV); today it is criminalised in 76 countries. We have made progress, but:

  • only a few laws exist on rape in marriage.
  • 31 countries have no DV law
  • 128 countries have at least one legal inequality

The report identifies a number of positive ways forward, including on page 29 a table of initiatives with promising impact. As with the SASA! study, we tend to believe it takes generations to change inequality and violence, but we can have big impact over programme timeframes.

The panel and audience challenged the corporate sector to up their game. Is it enough to create or increase employment for women? Or must we focus on the kinds of jobs? Hazardous, unpaid, part time, insecure, bottom level jobs do not advance equality or tackle poverty, nor does unpaid care work. The private sector should engage beyond the limited arena of corporate philanthropy. In terms of business and women in the workforce, Charlotte Watts proposed that those within the IFIs develop standards for investment policies for a model not based on exploitation.

This is a set of issues whose time has come.

Liz Ditchburn, DFID