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Taking Women's Rights Seriously

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The sustained degradation and subjugation of girls and women remains the world's most pervasive human rights violation.

Today, well over 100 million are 'missing' because of increased mortality from inequality and neglect and the majority of the 2.4 million victims of human trafficking, which treats people as products, are female. In its numbers and scale, the systematic discrimination outstrips even the wholesale abuses of the 18th and 19th century slave trade, which we today deplore as an obscene example of inhumanity from another era.

Yet, in supposedly civilised and enlightened times, girls and women around the world suffer unimaginable atrocities: forced marriage, rape, mutilation and death in pregnancy and childbirth. In Sierra Leone, a woman has a one in six chance of dying in childbirth in her lifetime -- a grotesque transformation of what should be the happiest time in a family's life into one of the most dangerous. Discrimination also means girls and women are more likely to be in poverty, denied schooling, deprived of health care, excluded from political and economic decision-making and die young.

In their important new book, Half The Sky, Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell very human stories of this abuse, discrimination and neglect. They argue that more girls have been murdered in the last 50 years simply because of their gender than all the people slaughtered in all the genocides. It is a conclusion which shames the modern world because, like slavery, this oppression is officially-sanctioned.

So a great challenge faces humankind: to match the abolition of slavery with the global emancipation of girls and women. This is not just moral reparation -- though it certainly is that -- rather, a fundamental empowerment essential for creating fairer, stronger and safer societies across the continents.

And it is in the interests of boys and men to do everything in their power to unleash the potential of girls and women and to champion their rights, because without their contribution we are all the poorer. So we will not rest until boys and men are persuaded to join our cause and therefore change their lives and our world.

Girls and women emancipated -- claiming and exercising power -- have made an enormous difference to their communities and the world. Enfranchisement also means more pressure to deal with the big issues affecting us all -- women, men and children alike -- transforming lives on the way. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai has drawn attention to climate change with her Green Belt Movement. Cory Aquino brought democracy to the Philippines, while Aung Sang Suu Kyi continues to stand as a beacon of hope for the people of Burma. Their examples inspire us all and show that we cannot afford to let a future leader fail to emerge because she was never given the chance.

So in Liberia a nationwide network is giving rural women a voice from local to national to international level. A government-private sector partnership is also giving adolescent girls in urban centres, who missed out on a formal education, skills for the job market so that they can support their children.

We are clear that women are key to meeting the enormous challenges facing the international community. Thirty years ago this December, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. And next year marks the 10th anniversary of UN Resolution 1325 acknowledging the effects of war on girls and women and enhancing their participation in conflict resolution. As these landmarks loom, it is imperative that we drive forward the emancipation agenda globally.

The UN has a leading role, yet its response has been too fragmented and has lacked coherence.
In 2006 a High Level Panel recommended a new, powerful agency that could empower women throughout the world.

Its creation has been delayed too long.

It must be urgently established with strong, high-level leadership to support national efforts and strengthen co-ordination of the UN's collective resolve to improve the lives of girls and women.

As evidence of Britain's commitment we will at least double the UK's core funding for the UN's work on women's equality through this new body, once established. We will also work tirelessly over the next three weeks to help make the agency a reality by the end of this current session of the General Assembly.

One of the new agency's key roles must be to address violence against women. We welcome the call by the Secretary-General for all member states to address the use of sexual violence in conflict situations.

Liberia is working closely with other African countries to establish the Angie Brooks Center, developing women's leadership skills around peace and security and ensuring that concrete action is taken on UNSCR 1325.

And all UK-led programmes tackling security and justice, particularly in conflict and post-conflict situations, will include support to girls and women affected by violence.

And because we know that keeping a girl in school is the best way to keep her safe and her community prospering, the UK and Liberia will give strong support to a major campaign being launched in October. Centered around the FIFA World Cup, it will help bridge the funding gap which denies most poor children -- and especially girls -- a basic education.

The experience in health, as in education, is that when fees are charged, girls and women are disproportionately deprived of essential care. So at next month's UN General Assembly there will be a major event to improve the health of women and children, including support for free access to quality services. This will build on the work of the Taskforce on Innovative Financing for Health Systems, of which we were both members.

Global economic and social progress lies in every country empowering their female populations, with full participation in economic and political decision-making essential.

It is impossible today to imagine that the slave trade could have been tolerated by the world for so long. So our duty is to deny future historians the opportunity to question how this generation allowed and participated in the abuse and suppression of girls and women.