05/24/2013 01:27 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

Women Deliver. How About Men?

Next week in Kuala Lumpur thousands of people from around the world will gather for the third global Women Deliver conference (May 28-30). The participants will include government leaders, policymakers, healthcare professionals, reporters, and nonprofit leaders. Their goal, which is as urgent as it is worthy, is to promote the health, rights, and empowerment of girls and women.

Most of the participants will be women. That's not surprising: Who else knows more about the crucial importance of empowering girls and women than women? But it is disappointing. And it is also a reflection of how far we still have to go in achieving full gender equality.

Around the world women are delivering... in every conceivable way. In addition to delivering children, girls and women are doing more than their fair share to make the world a better place. And they 'deliver' in many cases despite physical abuse and impossible odds.

What many, if not most, girls and women in the world do not have is a fair chance to succeed, and until they are better protected from sexual violence and coercion, they will never have that fair chance.

This week in Malaysia, where the conference is being held, a 40-year old man, who was recently charged with raping a 13-year old girl, told the court this week that he is now married to the girl. The Malaysian Attorney General and Malaysian Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development are urging that the man still be convicted of statutory rape. It is unclear though whether the prosecutors will proceed with the case.

As shocking as this incident sounds to many of us, marriage by abduction is still a prevalent practice in many developing countries, particularly in rural areas of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The defendant in the Malaysian case argued in his own defense that, "There are many cases of men marrying underage girls. I do not see why my case should be any different."

That comment reflects the deeper problem. In some parts of Malaysia and in many parts of the developing world the idea that women should be subservient to men is still deeply engrained in culture and tradition.

The high-profile raping of girls in India has generated virulent protests in recent months and may force prosecutors in India to take rape cases more seriously, but it does not change the fact that child marriage is still prevalent in many parts of India and that girls in many areas do not receive the same schooling as boys. Yes, the Indian parliament in March passed a more stringent law to guard women against sexual violence, but until India does more to elevate the status of girls, females will continue to suffer from inequitable treatment and high levels of sexual violence.

In the past decade, the developing world has made significant progress in enrolling more girls in primay schools, but their enrollment in higher education continues to lag, in part because child marriage is still prevalent in many areas. In male-dominated societies, where child marriage has been practiced for centuries, leaders often see little need to enforce laws against under-age marriage. That must change, for whenever girls are deprived of schooling and women are denied their reproductive rights, everyone suffers... women and men. Gender equality is a moral imperative, but it is also an economic and social imperative. No country, no society, however industrious or blessed with resources it may be, will ever reach its full potential so long as women are denied theirs.

If you look closely at those countries where respect for girls and women is lowest, you will invariably find high rates of maternal and infant mortality, hunger, poverty, illiteracy and disease. That's not coincidence. When girls are denied schooling and women are denied access to family planning and reproductive health services, their families and their communities invariably suffer. The world can -- and does -- spend an awful lot of time and resources treating the consequences of gender inequality, when it would be far more cost effective to tackle the underlying problem.

Empower girls and women and they will deliver. That's the message that the world will hear next week from Kuala Lumpur. Let's just hope the men of the world will be listening.