Women at a Crossroads

Women around the world are at a crossroads today. At no point in recent memory have more women simultaneously occupied the halls of power and been left stranded on the street. In this context, the Commission on the Status of Women met last week at the United Nations to review its landmark 1995 Beijing action document that made important headway on focusing the attention and resources of the world on the advancement of women. The time is right to continue pushing boldly forward with a new, comprehensive agenda for women and girls around the globe.

As the Commission meets, more than 1.5 billion young people, the largest youth generation in history, still struggle to find a way forward in the world. Half of them are girls and young women, and approximately 600 million of those girls live in developing countries. They are, on par, less educated, less healthy, and less free than their male peers.

In many places, girls and young women do not enjoy the basic rights and protections of citizenship -- including the right to own land, attend school, access healthcare services, stop unwanted sexual advances, and obtain justice for sexual assault and abuse.

The numbers are heartbreaking. Nearly half of all sexual assaults worldwide are committed against girls 15 and younger. Roughly 82 million girls between the ages of 10 and 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. A quarter to a half of girls in developing countries will become mothers before they turn 18. And young women constitute 75 percent of those 15-to-24 infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.

At the same time, women are rising to the top in international politics. Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, led the U.S. delegation to Beijing in 1995 and ignited the crowd with a monumental speech. At that point, no woman had ever served as U.S. Secretary of State. In the last 15 years, three of the four people to occupy that position have been women, including Hillary Clinton, who is now one of the most powerful leaders in the world.

This kind of change has occurred almost everywhere. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected Africa's first female head of state in Liberia. And, in Latin America, long a bastion of traditional thought about gender roles, three women now serve as head of state and nearly 20 percent of parliamentary seats across the region are occupied by women. Dilma Rousseff has been chosen by President Lula's party in Brazil to run as his replacement. If she wins, Latin America will have more female heads of government than Europe.

There is still a long way to go to reach full gender equality, but this groundswell is both a signal of the power of a broader movement to bring equality to women and girls, and an opportunity to create real change for the 600 million adolescent girls living in the developing world.

It's a unique opportunity at an unprecedented time, and, as such, the Commission should press an agenda with an approach that speaks to all the challenges that young girls and women face. If we fail to address the health concerns of women and girls or the educational concerns or the safety concerns, we threaten to undermine all progress in other areas. The only way forward is all in.

The United Nations Adolescent Girls Task Force has put forward such an agenda, which reflects the many challenges facing adolescent girls.

The task force has committed to educate adolescent girls, improve the health of adolescent girls -- including their reproductive health, keep adolescent girls free from violence, promote economic and social development, and better monitor the progress of adolescent girls so that evidence-based policies can be developed "to advance their well-being and realize their human rights."

It is admittedly an ambitious agenda, but there is trust in the Commission on the Status of Women to do great things. In 1995, they put to bed the antiquated idea that it was acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights. This week, let's dismiss the idea that we can do anything short of fully investing in the future of young girls.

As Hillary Clinton said at the meeting in Beijing in 1995, these are more than mere meetings, they are rare conversations that "compel governments and peoples everywhere to-listen, look, and face the world's most pressing problems." A legion of female leaders and hundreds of millions of young women and girls, all of them at the crossroads, are watching.