As Prime Minister of my country for nine years and the first woman to lead the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), I believe that achieving gender equality is not only morally right, but also catalytic to development as a whole, creating political, economic, and social opportunities for women which benefit individuals, communities, countries, and the world.
This strong belief underpins my contribution at the Women Deliver event in Washington, DC during a discussion on women and power with an impressive panel of powerful women, including the creator of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington; former Chilean Prime Minister Michelle Bachelet; actress Ashley Judd; and Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to Barack Obama for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement.
Women Deliver was launched in 2007, and works globally to focus attention on fulfilling what is called "Millennium Development Goal #5." This goal calls for a reduction in maternal mortality and universal access to reproductive health globally.
There are eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They are the most broadly supported, comprehensive, and specific development goals on which the international community has ever agreed. These eight time-bound goals aim at tackling poverty in its many dimensions. There are goals and targets on income poverty, hunger, access to education, maternal and child health, deadly diseases, inadequate shelter, gender inequality, environmental degradation, and the Global Partnership for Development.
The MDGs were adopted by world leaders in 2000 when they signed the Millennium Declaration, with a target date of 2015. As one of the world leaders who traveled to New York that year to sign the Millennium Declaration, I am personally committed to their achievement. If they are achieved, world poverty would be cut by half, tens of millions of lives would be saved, and billions more people will have the opportunity to benefit from access to schooling, health services, and clean water and sanitation.
Investing in women and girls will be critical for achieving the goals. Development progress is lagging where the needs and status of women and girls are given low priority. Women's reproductive health needs remain hugely underserved. More than half a million women die every year - or one woman every minute - from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Moreover, 25 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, gender inequality and unequal power relationships expose women to great risk. While about half of all people living with HIV/AIDS globally are female, in sub-Saharan Africa, approximately sixty per cent are female, and in some areas girls are 2 to 4.5 times more likely than boys to become infected.
Achieving real progress on maternal health requires a broad approach toward empowering women, and a greater investment in achieving gender equality. Ensuring political and economic empowerment is crucial to speeding up development progress and improving women's lives.
As a former head of government, I know that getting to the top of the ladder in politics is possible, but I also know how difficult it can be for women to do so. With women currently comprising only eighteen per cent of the world's legislators, we are far from parity. At the current rate of progress, it would take another forty years to reach gender parity in the world's national legislatures. I applaud initiatives like legislative quotas, civic education drives, and voter registration campaigns which seek to boost the numbers of women legislators. These programs can and should be replicated.
On the economic front, women are joining the workforce in increasing numbers, but almost two thirds of women in the developing world work in vulnerable jobs where they are either self-employed or work as unpaid family workers. Despite this, there are strong examples of programs which countries and the international development community can help implement to provide economic opportunities for women.
On my recent visit to Mali, I visited a women's co-operative which picks and processes high quality mangoes for the global market. Analysis supported by UNDP suggests that Mali could lift its export of mangoes from 2, 915 tons in 2005 to 200,000 tons. Already, with UNDP's support, exports had risen to 12, 676 tons by 2008. The women in the co-operative, their families and communities, and their country are all better off.
The knowledge and expertise is available to significantly improve the lives of women the world over. What we need now is the global will to make a difference. My message today in Washington is that, with support from developed and developing countries alike, we can achieve the MDGs, substantially improving the lives of millions of people. But we can only fully succeed if we commit to a focus on women's empowerment.
This is also the strong message which UNDP and I are conveying to world leaders as they prepare to come to New York this September to review progress on the MDGs.
I am inspired by the many examples of substantial progress for women I hear of every day. My dream is to see the progress which is being made broadened, so that all of the world's women can experience the benefits of greater economic, social, and personal security in their own lives.
Follow Helen Clark on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HelenClarkUNDP