The greatest weapon in the war against poverty is the empowerment of women and the education of girls, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today, calling for international support for efforts to achieve these goals.
"When it comes to solving the problems of this world, I believe in girl power," Mr. Annan said in his keynote address to the International Women's Health Coalition Annual Gala in New York.
He said "study after study" has proved that helping women and girls will serve to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality and improve health. "When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and investment go up," he said. "And what is true of families is true of communities and, eventually, whole countries."
Despite this fact, women and girls suffer disproportionately from the world's ills, Mr. Annan said, citing the example of HIV/AIDS. "It is a shocking fact - and one of which I, as an African man, feel ashamed - that a girl in sub-Saharan Africa is six times more likely to be infected than a boy," he said.
Women also indirectly bear the brunt of the pandemic, since girls, who are more likely to care for sick family members, often miss school as a result. Without an education, they tend to engage in early sexual relations and become exposed to HIV. "Thus they pay, many times over, the deadly price of not getting an education."
Offering an example of "the kind of leadership we need," the Secretary-General related an anecdote about a young girl he had met in Ethiopia who was living with HIV but had made it her mission to tell others about prevention. The Secretary-General's wife, Nane, who was along at the time, "told her that young people would probably listen to her more than me," he said. "She immediately agreed."
"It is among young people like these that the heroes and heroines of our age are to be found," he told the gathering. "It is our job to furnish them with hope."