Hundreds of millions of people could escape poverty in the next decade if governments meet calls to improve equality for women and promote reproductive health, the United Nations said Wednesday.
The UN Population Fund's (UNFPA) annual report stressed the productive potential of more than 1.7 billion women aged 15 to 49, the largest number in that age group that the world has ever had.
"Targeted investments in their education, reproductive health, economic opportunity and political rights can spur growth and sustainable development for generations to come," the report said.
But the report also highlighted the huge obstacles many women face. For example, 600 million women are illiterate, compared to 320 million men. Women tend to work in more dangerous jobs, have fewer rights and are trafficked for sex, the report said.
Access to reproductive health services allowing women to choose the number of children and to space births would help women and girls in poor regions boost their economic contribution to society, the UN said.
The result would be smaller family sizes, slower population growth and less pressure on the environment.
"Lower fertility rates means a higher proportion of young people entering their productive years with relatively fewer dependents to support," the report said.
It identifies education, reproductive health and economic opportunity as three "strategic interventions" necessary to achieve the goal of gender equality around the world.
The report decries the fact far more women than men toil in sweatshops, farms, factories, marketplace, mines and offices.
"They do so largely in the absence of supportive policies, laws, institutions and services," the report said. "Much of their work is unrecognized, invisible and unpaid."
The World Bank estimates that women in developed countries earn 77 US cents for every dollar earned by men. In developing countries, the figure for women drops to 73 US cents.
Women in developing countries' rural areas are responsible for up to 80 percent of food production, but many governments still prohibit women from acquiring or disposing of land without their husbands' permission.
Gender-based violence also inflicts a toll on women: one of three has been beaten, coerced into unwanted sexual relations or abused, the report says.
An estimated 800,000 people, 80 percent of them women and girls, are trafficked each year across borders for commercial sex trade, the report says.
It added that few advances have been made in terms of women's involvement in the legislative process, with just 16 percent of the world's parliamentary seats being held by women an increase of just 4 percent since 1990.
Advance for developing country
However, some of the greatest advances in securing women's representation are being made in developing countries. Rwanda has now surpassed Sweden with the highest proportion of women holding parliamentary seats in the world.
Gender equality and the reduction of maternal and infant mortality is one of the so-called Millennium Development Goals set by the UN General Assembly to be achieved by 2015. This year's UN Population Fund report was designed to review progress toward that goal.
"I am here today to say that world leaders will not make poverty history until they make gender discrimination history," said UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid at the launch of the report Wednesday.
"We cannot make poverty history until we stop violence against women and girls. We cannot make poverty history until women enjoy their full social, cultural, economic and political rights," stressed Obaid.
She added that "many leaders call for free trade to spur economic growth. It is time to call for action to free women of the discrimination, violence and poor health they face in their daily lives.
"And I can assure you that women all over the world are tired of promises, promises, promises. The time has come; we have all the means, we have the commitment. Now we need action."
(China Daily October 13, 2005)