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Michelle Bachelet

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The World's Women and the Pursuit of Justice

Posted: 07/08/11 06:39 PM ET

Women across the world enjoy greater opportunities and freedoms than ever before. It is a peaceful revolution under-pinned by an extraordinary transformation of legal rights. Almost every country has signed international conventions signaling their commitment to outlaw discrimination against women. Nearly 140 national constitutions specifically guarantee gender equality.

But promising equality, of course, is not the same as delivering it on the ground. Despite real advances, there sadly remains an immense gap between these welcome legal guarantees and everyday life for women. It is a justice deficit which can be found in rich and poorer countries alike and in every aspect of our societies.

It is not, however, only women who suffer from this failure of justice. We all do -- whatever our gender. Without a doubt, women's strength, industry and wisdom are humanity's greatest untapped resource. It is potential we simply can't afford to continue to waste.

It was this recognition that led to the formation of UN Women, which brings together all the UN gender equality agencies under my leadership. It was our recognition that the justice gap was crucial to removing the barriers to equality which made it the subject of our first report -- Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice.

It is comprehensive and sobering, cataloguing both the lack of legal protection women receive and the reasons behind this failure.

In some cases, it can be the laws themselves which are unjust. Early pregnancy and childbirth remains the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 in the developing world. Yet in no less than 50 countries, the age of marriage for girls still remains lower than for boys. In over 40 economies, too, women remain barred from certain jobs and industries.

But in many cases, women are denied a fair deal because of a failure, whether through lack of resources, will or cultural obstacles, to uphold the legal rights they have been granted. We discovered that women are three times less likely to report a sexual attack than a robbery. It is all too easy to understand why. A European study found on average only 14 percent of reported rapes ended in conviction. In other countries, the figure is even lower.

We found a similar failure, too, in the economic sphere. Despite 117 countries having equal pay laws, women in every sector and region continue to be paid between 10 to 30 percent less than men.

It is, however, not all bad news. For as well as identifying where justice is failing women, the report also identifies where and how progress is being made. It shows, for example, how the law itself, through landmark cases, has helped drive change and alter attitudes. We see as well how vital is an increase in women's representation in Parliament, the judiciary and enforcement agencies in advancing women's rights.

I find it heartening that the number of countries where women make up over 30 percent of parliamentarians is now 28 and that they can be found from Tanzania to Costa Rica, Rwanda to Spain. It is still far too few, of course, but it is a seven-fold increase on the position in 1997. We are moving slowly in the right direction.

We found how practical and achievable measures can make a big difference. An increase in the number of women police officers help overcome a reluctance to report sexual assaults. Convictions increase when the police are joined up with forensic, health and legal services in one stop shops. In Sweden, improved paternity leave has reduced the gender pay gap. In Nepal, tax exemptions have incentivised families to transfer land to daughters, sisters and wives.

But there is a huge amount more to do. It is clear, for example, we need determined action to protect and promote women's rights in conflict and post-conflict societies. The targeting of women for sexual violence has become an unacceptable fact of modern war. It is women, too, who have proved themselves vital in healing the wounds of societies and ensuring a lasting and just peace.

So our report is a call for action -- setting challenges for national governments, civil societies and the international community. It outlines an agenda which, by ensuring laws and the legal system tackle bias against women, will accelerate the progress towards our ambitions for a better world. UN Women will work to support this agenda, with the benefits to be felt by everyone. We all win -- men and women, girls and boys -- if we win this battle for justice.

Michelle Bachelet is the first Executive Director and Under-Secretary-General of UN Women. UN Women's flagship report, Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice, is launched this week (visit progress.unwomen.org).