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 in the full report 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 declines in 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 nonstate 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.