07/28/2011 03:37 pm ET | Updated Sep 27, 2011

Man Up!

A few days ago, I took part in the World YWCA's fourth International Women's Summit in Zurich, Switzerland, where people from more than 100 countries gathered to discuss issues facing girls and women. Under the theme "Women creating a safe world" we focused on gender inequality, young women's right to sexual and reproductive health, and how to end violence against women.

The Summit reinforced my belief that adolescent girls and young women can create a safer world -- if we invest in their well-being today and empower them to be the leaders of tomorrow.

In Nigeria, I worked as the Minister of Health, and head of the National Agency to Control AIDS, where I witnessed the devastating impact of gender inequality on women's and girls' well-being. At the time, nearly 58 per cent of Nigerians with HIV were female. To this day, many girls are married off before they are physically or psychologically ready, as young as 13 or 14. They are highly vulnerable to HIV infection and unintended pregnancy because it is not acceptable for them to ask their partners to use a condom or refrain from sex.

The situation in Nigeria is not unlike the situation in many other countries. Today, pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of death for adolescent girls ages 15-19. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls and women aged 15 to 24 are as much as eight times as likely as men their age to become infected with HIV, in part because of economic and social vulnerability.

The disparities in health between the sexes are critical indicators of inequity in society that must be addressed. As head of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, I am working to guarantee access to reproductive health and promote reproductive rights and gender equality.

All over the world, communities and countries are making progress in upholding the rights of girls and women. Access to sexuality education and basic health care has improved, there is increased knowledge about HIV and AIDS and rising enrolment of girls in school. There is also a decline in child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting, though millions of girls still suffer from these harmful practices.

Worldwide, more than 60 million women ages 20-24 were married by age 18, some with little understanding of reproduction. These girls will not complete secondary education, and many will become pregnant before their bodies are mature enough to safely deliver a child. As of 2007, girls in this age bracket accounted for one in four unsafe abortions, resulting in an estimated 5 million abortions a year.

We can no longer afford to shy away from these realities. No woman or girl should die during pregnancy and childbirth. No woman or girl should die from unsafe abortions.

Comprehensive sexuality education and access to reproductive health care, including family planning, are the best ways to reduce recourse to abortion. As a part of a comprehensive package of reproductive health services, voluntary family planning can save lives, enhance women's life options and reduce poverty.

Yet, during the past decade, progress on reducing adolescent birth rates and meeting the unmet need for family planning has stalled and funding remains virtually stagnant.

This year there is a $24 billion shortfall in funding for population programmes in developing countries--funding for sexuality education; services for maternal health, HIV prevention and family planning and population data and research. And bearing the brunt of this shortfall are adolescent girls and women in rural areas, those with little education and those from the poorest households.

By joining our efforts to empower girls today, we can unleash their power and potential. Imagine the difference one girl can make. Educated, healthy and skilled, she will be an active citizen in her community. She will become a mother when she is ready and invest in her future children's health and education. She will be able to contribute fully to her society and help break the cycle of poverty.

Multiply this by the 500 million girls in the developing world and imagine the possibilities.

We must act now before it is too late. We need laws and policies to promote the rights of adolescent girls and young women to education and services for sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. We need to mobilize the necessary resources and demand accountability. We need to support young women's leadership by providing safe spaces where they can discuss issues and ideas, and identify ways to overcome challenges.

Very importantly, we need to reach out to boys and men. As Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, I call upon my fellow men to man up! Being a real man means saying no to gender-based violence and discrimination, and respecting the rights of girls and women.