The lack of women's rights in developing countries has come into the spotlight recently, and some are calling the struggle for gender equity the human rights cause of this century.
It's about time. In addition to being a moral imperative, improving the rights and lives of women is key to reducing poverty and increasing economic development.
Women's rights received an important boost last month when the United Nations created a new agency, the U.N. Development Fund for Women, to focus on women's social and economic plight. The Clinton Global Initiative also launched a $24 million effort to give more economic power to women in the developing world.
Speaking at the CGI meeting last month, former President Bill Clinton noted some of the economic inequities women face worldwide.
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"According to the United Nations, women do 66 percent, two-thirds of the world's work, produce 50 percent of the world's food — a factor which would stun people in this country, given the way agriculture is organized — earn 10 percent of the world's income and own 1 percent of the world's property," he said.
Women and girls also are overwhelmingly the victims of crimes and cultural violence. For example, an estimated 130 million women have been subjected to genital cutting, and thousands of girls are forced into the sex trade each year.
Hundreds of thousands of women also die needlessly because of lack of health care, which in some countries is reserved for men and boys. For example, an estimated 500,000 women in the developing world die during childbirth and pregnancy every year — or about one woman every minute.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn report in their new book, "Half the Sky," that more than 100 million women are missing. "More girls are killed in this 'gendercide' each decade than in all the genocides of the 20th century," they write. "This year, another 2 million girls will 'disappear.' "
Yet until recently, such horrors have rarely made the news or been mentioned from church pulpits.
Aid organizations have known for some time that targeting assistance to women is the most effective way to lift families and countries out of poverty. That's because women in many countries are more careful stewards of money than men, and they tend to invest in their children's education.
President Obama noted at the CGI meeting how his mother, Wichita native Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, "championed the cause of women's welfare and helped pioneer the micro loans that have helped lift millions from poverty." Most of these loans go to women.
It's encouraging that women's rights and the plight of women worldwide finally are getting the international attention they deserve. But making real progress needs to not take a century.