Women’s inclusion, justice, and security are more critical than ever in the midst of a pandemic that has wreaked havoc around the world. This year’s global report, the third since the inaugural edition in 2017, finds a slowdown in the pace of improvement in the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Index and widening disparities across countries. The range of scores on the 2021 WPS Index is vast, with Norway at the top scoring more than three times better than Afghanistan at the bottom. The range of scores is much wider than in 2017, when the score of the top performer was about twice that of the worst performer. This widening gap reflects rising inequality in the status of women across countries: countries at the top continue to improve while those at the bottom get worse, mirroring global trends in wealth and income inequality. The index captures and quantifies the three dimensions of women’s inclusion (economic, social, political), justice (formal laws and informal discrimination), and security (at the individual, community, and societal levels) through 11 indicators (figure 1). Globally, WPS Index scores have risen an average of 9 percent since 2017 and at above-average rates in 31 countries. Score improved more than 5 percent in 90 countries. Six of the top ten score improvers are in Sub-Saharan Africa.1 And current global levels of organized violence are significantly below the 2014 peak, despite a moderate uptick between 2019 and 2020.
Comparing regions and countries: A snapshot in time
The top dozen countries on the index are all in the Developed Country group (see appendix 2 for region and country groups). The differences across these 12 countries are minimal, with a range from .879 (Canada, at number 12) to .922 (Norway, at the top; figure 2). At the other end of the spectrum, there is a much wider range of performance, with Afghanistan at the bottom performing some 51 percent worse on the index than Somalia, ranked 12th from the bottom. Of the bottom 12 countries, 10 are classified by the World Bank as fragile states.
All except Palestine (newly added to the index), Sierra Leone, and Somalia have been in the bottom dozen since the 2019 WPS Index—and 7 of the bottom 12 have been in this group since 2017. Yet some of these countries have made progress: the Democratic Republic of the Congo is among the top score improvers since 2017, rising 13 percent, while the score of Central African Republic rose 22 percent, moving the country out of the bottom dozen, to 157th place.
This year, for the first time, South Asia is the worst performing region, reflecting high levels of legal discrimination, intimate partner violence, and discriminatory norms that disenfranchise women, often coupled with low levels of inclusion. Fewer than one woman in four in the region is in paid work, less than half the global average.
Behind regional averages, some countries perform much better or much worse than their neighbors, illustrating the scope for feasible improvements (figure 3). Unpacking the WPS Index reveals mixed performance across indicators. All countries have room for improvement. Mexico, 88th overall, is 43rd on the justice dimension but falls to 160th on the security dimension: only a third of women feel safe walking alone in their neighborhood at night, and rates of organized violence are the among the 10 highest in the world.
The widest spectrums of performance are in employment and financial inclusion. And the COVID pandemic has undermined women’s opportunities for paid employment in much of the world. Women’s employment rates range from 92 percent in Burundi to just 5 percent in Yemen. Rates of financial inclusion range from universal in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to fewer than 1 woman in 20 in South Sudan and Yemen. On the legal front, the Middle East and North Africa is the worst performing region, averaging only 50 of 100 points, with Palestine having the worst legal score (26) globally. The share of men who believe it is unacceptable for women to have a paid job outside the home if they want one— our measure of discriminatory norms —is also highest in the Middle East and North Africa. This suggests a convergence of formal and informal barriers to women’s justice in the region.
On the security dimension, Latin America performs badly on community safety, with only about one woman in three feeling safe walking alone in her neighborhood at night, although the country where women feel least safe is Afghanistan. Syria does the worst globally on organized violence and the worst regionally on community safety.
Trends in WPS Index scores between 2017 and 2021
Changes in index rankings show how countries have performed relative to others,2 while fluctuations in a country’s scores capture absolute changes in women’s inclusion, justice, and security.
Since the inaugural 2017 WPS Index, 90 countries have improved their score by at least 5 percent—and in 31 countries scores rose at least 9 percent, surpassing the global average improvement. Six of the top ten score improvers are in Sub-Saharan Africa: Central African Republic, Mali, Cameroon, Benin, Kenya, and Rwanda, in descending order of improvement (figure 4).
Analysis of trends reveals that the pace of progress has slowed by more than half: the global average WPS Index rose about 7 percent between 2017 and 2019 but only about 3 percent between 2019 and 2021.
Worsening index scores for several countries underscore persistent challenges. Since 2017, Afghanistan’s score has deteriorated 28 percent, driven mostly by worsening rates of organized violence and perceptions of community safety, with the recent rise of the Taliban threatening further deterioration. Scores also worsened in absolute terms for Haiti, Namibia, and Yemen, with especially marked decline sin community safety (except Yemen) and rising rates of organized violence (except Namibia).
Welcome improvements in many countries included new legislation to protect women from domestic violence, increases in women’s cellphone use (jumping from 78 to 85 percent in the four years to 2020), and perceptions of community safety (climbing in 81 countries). Women’s parliamentary representation, though rising, still averages only about one in four.
A unique dimension of the WPS Index is women’s security, measured by rates of current intimate partner violence, perceptions of community safety, and organized violence. The good news is that global levels of organized violence are well below their 2014 peak, despite a moderate uptick in battle deaths between 2019 and 2020. In 2020, more than 60 percent of battle deaths occurred in four countries: Afghanistan (20,836), Mexico (16,385), Azerbaijan (7,621), and Syria (5,583).
Organized violence has declined despite a rising number of conflicts: there were 56 unique state-based conflicts in 2020—the highest number since 1946—alongside 72 non state conflicts. This points to the presence of many low-intensity conflicts and underlines that more people now live in conflict zones. This is a major concern given accumulating evidence of the repercussions of conflict beyond the battlefield, especially for women and children, from increased food insecurity to higher risks of intimate partner violence.
High rates of organized violence are strongly correlated not only with high rates of violence against women in the home,3 but also with poor performance on women’s inclusion, justice, and security more broadly. Two of the four countries with the worst levels of violence in 2020—and indeed over the past decade—Afghanistan and Yemen, are also bottom ranked on the WPS Index.
COVID threatens to widen inequalities
The pandemic has triggered multiple crises, and challenges for women have worsened on several fronts, not least in juggling paid jobs and unpaid care work, but also in growing threats to safety. Although comprehensive sex-disaggregated data covering the impacts are lacking, there is accumulating evidence that two of the three key dimensions of the index—inclusion and security—have been hard hit. While the gender inequalities exposed during the pandemic are nothing new, they underscore the urgent need to build equitable systems that are resilient in good times and bad.
The pandemic has triggered major reversals in rates of paid employment, a key indicator of women’s inclusion. Estimated losses in paid employment for women in 2020 (5 percent) exceeded those for men (3.9 percent).4 In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, 17 million women exited paid work during the pandemic, compared with 14 million men.5 Globally among people who lost their jobs, 9 in 10 women became economically inactive, most of them young, urban, and less educated, compared with 7 in 10 men.6 This has extensive repercussions, especially for pensions and savings, amplifying wealth gaps that favor men. Long-term exits of women from paid work also reduce national output and prospects for future economic growth.7
There is also evidence that women-owned businesses have closed at higher rates during the pandemic due to their smaller size, greater informality, and operation in hardest-hit sectors.8 Surveys by the World Bank of about 45,000 firms in 49 mostly low- and middle-income countries found that in the hospitality industry, businesses led by men experienced a 60 percent fall in expected sales, compared with 68 percent for businesses led by women, which also reported higher financial risks and less cash available to cover costs.9 Globally, 40 percent of women worked in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, compared with 37 percent of men,10 ranging from 25 percent in South Asia to 54 percent in East Asia and the Pacific (figure 5).
Before the pandemic, an estimated 42 percent of working-age women worldwide were outside the paid labor force because of unpaid care responsibilities, compared with 6 percent of men.11 National lockdowns and widespread school closures amplified these responsibilities, with gendered implications for time in paid work. In July 2021, about 36 million children lived in a country with full school closures, and another 807 million faced partial school closures.12
Women have faced increasing risks of intimate partner violence and greater difficulty leaving abusive relationships due to worsening economic conditions and national lockdowns. For example, survey data from more than 2,500 partnered women in Iran before the pandemic and six months into the crisis revealed that prevalence rates of current intimate partner violence soared from 54 to 65 percent and that job losses for women or their partner dramatically increased the likelihood of intimate partner violence.13
The pandemic has augmented the risk of both first-time and ongoing intimate partner violence. In Iran, more than a quarter of women who had not previously experienced intimate partner violence were abused during the first six months of the pandemic.14 And during the first wave of lockdowns in Nigeria, women previously experiencing intimate partner violence suffered more severe acts or new forms of violence.15
Addressing adverse impacts of the pandemic on women
The crisis has brought some welcome innovations that recognize and address inequalities. Expanding access to paid parental leave and quality childcare, alongside flexible work models, are keys to ensuring gender equality in the return to work in the short term and having good labor market opportunities in the long term (infographic 1). The social protection responses to the pandemic have been unprecedented in scale and scope—from labor market policies, to social assistance, to unemployment benefits. The most common measures include liquidity support and tax relief for businesses. Among labor market policies, 60 percent were new, and 40 percent were adaptations of existing programs. About a third of developing countries have offered direct support to workers through wage subsidies, expanded unemployment benefits, or reduced income taxes.16 To expand the reach of social protection programs, countries including Kazakhstan, Lesotho, and Viet Nam sought to include informal workers.17
Many new and expanded social protection programs leveraged digital platforms, reaching nearly one billion new beneficiaries.18 Depositing government cash transfers directly into women’s accounts and digitizing payments can promote gender equality in recovery.19 Argentina distributed cash transfers to households in the summer of 2020 and prioritized women as the primary recipients.20 Ghana and Kenya expanded mobile cash transfers during the pandemic, reaching women in informal work and in remote areas.21 Digital innovations have potential advantages in speed, privacy, and reach, but gender gaps in digital access persist.
Even so, informal workers, who have traditionally been excluded from social protection, risk not receiving stimulus money because they are less frequently registered by the government as employees.22 In India, more than half of the country’s 326 million poor women were excluded from emergency cash transfers at the pandemic’s onset because they lacked bank accounts to receive the transfers.23
Governments have taken various approaches to supporting people who are providing unpaid care. Uzbekistan extended paid leave for working parents for the duration of school and daycare closures. Similarly, Trinidad and Tobago introduced “pandemic leave” as a new classification of paid leave for working parents.24
Of the measures addressing gender-based violence tracked by the United Nations Development Program and UN Women, about two-thirds sought to strengthen services for survivors, including hotlines, other reporting mechanisms, and resources to enhance police and judicial responses.25 According to the World Bank, 88 countries have allowed remote court operations, and at least 72 have declared family cases urgent or essential during lockdown.26 Overall, however, measures to address violence against women during the pandemic have been uneven and often inadequate.27
Civil society organizations have played critical first-responder roles, especially in rural, remote, and marginalized communities where governments were unable or unwilling to act. Women’s organizations have served in a broad range of capacities: supplying essential health and hygiene resources, distributing financial support to women-owned businesses, training women in virtual entrepreneurial skills, and supporting survivors of gender-based violence.
The crisis underscores the urgent need to build equitable systems that are resilient during good times and bad. The crisis has also brought welcome innovations that recognize and address inequalities. The more successful policy responses tend to be associated with strong precrisis systems, broad eligibility criteria, proactive outreach efforts, and effective financing.28
A new lens on forced displacement
Forced displacement has moved up the global agenda as the number of displaced people has risen to unprecedented levels, approaching 90 million at the end of 2020. About 55 million remained in their own country as internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the rest were refugees.29 About 48 million IDPs were displaced by conflict and violence and about 7 million by natural disasters.30
Displaced women and girls face a higher risk of all forms of gender-based violence and economic marginalization.31 Public services are often disrupted or restricted in conflict-affected countries.32 Displaced women face barriers to livelihood opportunities, including eligibility for cash and voucher assistance, as a result of intersecting factors affecting their rights, agency, and access to economic opportunities.
Separate indices for forcibly displaced women and host community women in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan reveal that displaced women had an average disadvantage of about 24 percent. And they generally faced much higher risks than host community women of violence at home, were less likely to be financially included, and often felt less free to move about. Displaced women’s disadvantage was greatest in South Sudan, where their score (.284) fell about 42 percent below that of host community women.
The three countries with the greatest disparities in WPS Index scores between displaced and host community women—Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Sudan—are also the countries with the widest multidimensional poverty gaps between displaced and host community populations.33 In all five countries, refugee and IDP households headed by women were more likely than those headed by men to be poor, showing how gender inequality compounds the effects of displacement and poverty. In refugee households in Ethiopia, 58 percent of those headed by a woman were impoverished, compared with 19 percent headed by a man.34 Lack of physical safety, early marriage, and absence of legal identification were the largest contributors to poverty in households headed by displaced women.
Across all five countries, displaced women fared systematically worse than host community women in financial inclusion and risk of intimate partner violence. The gaps between refugee and host community women in financial inclusion exceeded 15 percentage points in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Somalia, compared with 4 percentage points in Sudan.35 In Somalia, 36 percent of displaced women had experienced intimate partner violence in the past year, compared with 26 percent of host community women, a difference of 38 percent. In South Sudan, 47 percent of displaced women had experienced intimate partner violence—a rate nearly double the national average of 27.
The gender gaps facing displaced women were greatest for employment. Across all five countries, employment rates were at least 90 percent higher for displaced men than for displaced women—nearly 150 percent higher in Nigeria, where only about 15 percent of displaced women were employed. The gaps reflect the broader reality of high labor market segregation by gender around the world, with women more concentrated in unskilled and low-paid sectors than men, a condition that makes it hard for refugee women to find jobs.36 Language barriers, lower literacy rates, unpaid care responsibilities, and gender norms that limit women’s mobility can compound the constraints on displaced women’s economic opportunities.37
Our results underline the added challenges related to inclusion, justice, and security for displaced women, highlighting the intersecting and compounding challenges of gender inequality and forced displacement. At the same time, the range of performance, both overall and on specific indicators, demonstrates the complexity of each situation. In Somalia, displaced women had relatively high rates of financial inclusion but the lowest rates of legal identification among the five countries. Nigeria had the lowest rates of intimate partner violence for both displaced and host community women, while cellphone access for displaced women was the second worst of the five countries.
Insights from subnational disparities
This report explores variation within national borders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States based on new subnational WPS indices created for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States. In Afghanistan, provincial index scores ranged from .639 in Panjshir to .162 in Uruzgan (figure 6), with the widest gaps for organized violence. In Pakistan, provincial index scores ranged from .734 for Punjab to .194 for Balochistan (see infographic 2). And in the United States, Massachusetts at the top scored more than four times better than Louisiana at the bottom.
Afghanistan’s lowest-ranking provinces are mainly in the southeastern areas, where rates of organized violence and intimate partner violence were high. Acceptance of wife beating was widespread (between 67 and 97 percent), and levels of women’s participation in domestic decision making were very low (between 3 and 21 percent). High rates of violence in the home compounded the security threats facing women. Nationwide, 35 percent of Afghan women experienced intimate partner violence in the past year, and rates exceeded 84 percent in Ghor, Herat, and Wardak provinces—higher than those in any country in the global WPS Index. The return to power of the Taliban is widely expected to lead to further deterioration in the condition of Afghan women around the country.
Provincial index scores also ranged widely across Pakistan, from .734 for Punjab to .194 for Balochistan. The rankings on the provincial WPS Index mirror those for income and poverty. Punjab was the best-off, with the lowest reported rate of income poverty, at 32 percent, while Balochistan’s poverty rate approached 60 percent.38
As elsewhere in the world, two key aspects of women’s security—organized violence and current intimate partner violence—are closely related across Pakistan. Women in provinces with the highest rates of organized violence also face the highest rates of current intimate partner violence, underlining the amplified risks of violence at home for women living near conflict areas. Balochistan had the highest rates of both: organized violence was at 14 deaths per 100,000, and 35 percent of women had experienced intimate partner violence in the past year.
State performance varied greatly in the United States, with top-ranking Massachusetts scoring more than four times better than bottom-ranking Louisiana. We found clear regional patterns in performance, with all 6 states in the northeast scoring among the 10 best nationally, while all 5 of the worst performing states were in the southeast (figure 6). New Hampshire was the only state that scored in the top 40 percent of countries for all 12 indicators, while Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana scored in the bottom 40 percent across the board.
Major racial disparities affected the status of women in many US states—white women typically did best. Racial gaps were most marked for college degree attainment, representation in the state legislature, and maternal mortality. On average, 38 percent of white women had completed college, almost double the rate of Native American women, and in 26 states, no Hispanic women were represented in the state legislature. Large disparities also marked maternal mortality, with Black women experiencing higher mortality rates than white women in all states with data. In New Jersey, the maternal mortality rate among Black women, at 132 deaths per 100,000 live births, was almost four times the rate among white women.
The new subnational indices illustrate the diverse challenges and needs facing women behind national borders. The indices also underscore the importance of multidimensional measures of women’s status and opportunities.
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This year’s global rankings and novel WPS Index applications underline and illustrate the diverse obstacles and needs facing women around the world. The massive challenges created by the pandemic mean that intersectional analysis and policy making are more important than ever as communities and governments strive to build back better.
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