09/25/2012 05:07 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

World's Future Depends on Women's Equality

In America, women doing the same jobs as men make 23 cents less per hour -- and pay a lot more for health insurance. Women's experiences are routinely ignored -- think "legitimate rape." Women's rights to reproductive services are under continual assault.

Around the world, the portrait is even grimmer.

Filipino women are dying in childbirth for lack of access to modern contraception. Pakistani girls are disfigured with acid in retribution for rejecting marriage proposals. Rape is used as a weapon of war in the Congo and elsewhere. Trafficking of women and girls for sex slavery is epidemic -- even in America.

There's no such thing as partial human equality - we're either all equal, or we're not. And in so many ways, half of us -- the female half -- are not equal.

So what can we do? We must change a culture that says half of humanity is less than the rest. We must not let our daughters be given fewer opportunities for lifelong success than our sons. We must defend the rights of women and girls everywhere.

It won't be easy -- few things worth pursuing are. But one piece to the equality puzzle isn't difficult. In fact, we're already investing in it.

When women from Minneapolis to Manila have the ability to choose if and when to have families, they're able to shape their own futures. That's what voluntary family planning is all about, and we must keep supporting it, regardless of how the political winds shift in November.

Sept. 26 marks World Contraception Day, and the difference contraception makes is nothing short of astonishing. The average Iranian woman in the 1980s had nearly seven children. The Iranian government -- rightly concerned about its ability to care for such a fast-growing population -- developed a voluntary family planning program that was the envy of the reproductive health world. Couples received family planning education before marriage, and public clinics provided free contraception. Media outlets shared the message that small families are strong families.

Even in Islamic Iran, family planning worked. The average family size dropped to around 1.6 births per woman. Maternal mortality plummeted while women's literacy doubled. Many women entered universities and the workforce to better provide for their families.

Unfortunately, this experiment in equality appears to be over. Iran's Supreme Leader has called for an end to its family planning program. Female students are being banned from Iranian universities -- their achievement is seen as a threat.

Iranian women proved what all women are capable of. That's why the United States should be vigorously on their side.

In 2012, the United States invested $610 million in international family planning programs -- about $2 per American per year. Even in these difficult economic times, it's a modest price to pay to help the world's women achieve their dreams.

The saying is true -- women hold up half the sky -- and it's long past time that women are freed of the burden of inequality. Access to family planning certainly isn't the entire answer. But the power it gives women over their own lives just might get us halfway there.