Unless nations act now to end gender discrimination and provide equal social, cultural, economic and political rights to women, they will not be able to eradicate poverty, possibly for many generations to come, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said today.
"I am here today to say that world leaders will not make poverty history until they make gender discrimination history," UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid told a press briefing in London at the launch of the agency's new report, The State of World Population 2005.
"I can assure you that women all over the world are tired of promises, promises, promises," Ms. Obaid added. "The time has come; we have the means, we have the commitment. Now we need action."
In New York, the principal author of the report, María José Alcalá, said investing in women and girls makes social and economic sense because discrimination leads to lower productivity and higher health costs, results in higher death rates of women, and is a major threat to efforts to reduce poverty.
The cost of turning gender inequality around, reducing violence against women and improving women's reproductive health is "modest, at well under $200 billion a year," Ms. Alcalá said. "For a person living in extreme poverty, this is roughly what we spend on a cup of coffee each day in wealthier countries," she added.
A lack of contraceptives, family planning support, and reproductive health assistance leads to 529,000 women dying every year from pregnancy-related causes, most of them preventable. The world population is almost 6.5 billion today, and is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050 – and a lack of access to contraceptives is one of the primary causes of an estimated 76 million unwanted pregnancies, and 19 million unsafe abortions each year, the report says.
Reproductive health problems including HIV/AIDS, constitute the leading cause of death and illness among women 15 to 44, and the study estimates that 250 million years of productive life are lost as a result.
Fourteen million girls every year give birth to a child before they are 18 years old, and more than one million will become child brides in over a decade, some of them as young as 7 years old, Ms. Alcalá said. "Their options in life are curtailed, their prospects for breaking the cycle of poverty, diminished," she added.
The report argues that investing in the political, economic and educational opportunities for women and girls yields "quick wins and high pay-offs" which in turn lead to "better economic prospects, smaller families, healthier and more literate children, lower HIV prevalence rates and reduced harmful traditional practices." All of these factors play a part in cutting poverty.
Violence against women is also a major concern, with one in three women likely to experience physical, sexual or other abuse in her lifetime, most of those committed by a family member. But change has been slow, says the report, including on the political front, where only 16 per cent of the world's parliamentary seats are held by women, up just 4 per cent from 1990.
In light of the latest crises in Pakistan and Guatemala, Ms. Alcalá said, "we should remember that tens of thousands of those women who have been displaced are pregnant and in need of life-saving care," but many do not have the same access to healthcare that women have in industrialised countries. "That is morally and ethically indefensible," she added.
At a separate meeting held at UN Headquarters yesterday, UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer also urged governments to take account of women's needs in policy-making.
Addressing the General Assembly's Social, Economic and Cultural (Third) Committee, she said women's growing role in migration, as heads of households, and in providing foreign remittances requires that nations incorporate gender equality in their implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at reducing global ills by 2015.