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Still unequal

TEN YEARS ago in Beijing, a United Nations summit established a set of goals for ending discrimination against women around the world.

Among other things, that meant equality for women in education and health care, greater representation of women in government and other decision-making positions, and promotion of human rights, including an end to sex trafficking, coerced marriage, and domestic violence. The conference was notable for establishing that equality for women is not a Western construct foisted upon traditional societies but a universal human right to be observed by every one of the 184 governments that signed the Beijing document.

In the 10 years since, progress has surely been made. Life expectancy has gone up and fertility rates have gone down. But though governments have come to accept their obligations toward equality for women and girls, actually implementing these policies in the face of entrenched customs has not been easy.

In education, for example, girls still account for 54 percent of the 120 million children not in school; two-thirds of the world's illiterate are women. Yet girls who complete secondary school are more likely to have smaller, healthier families and to contribute to the economic growth of their communities.

Closing the gender gap in education is not just a matter of simple equity, in other words, but a crucial investment in the long-term health and development of the world.

Education must also include comprehensive sex education. Women need information both about family planning and protection against sexually transmitted diseases. Some of the highest rates of new HIV infections are among women, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. And 500 million women still die every year from pregnancy-related causes.

Last week the United States withdrew its obstructionist insistence that the Beijing agreement include a statement that it did not create a new universal right to abortion. The document already makes that clear. But the US delegation at the UN's Beijing-plus-10 conference did reaffirm its commitment to abstinence. This is not a realistic option in the countries that are most affected by HIV-AIDS, where thousands of young women are coerced into sex or get HIV infections from their husbands. Still, the Bush administration blindly directs fully a third of the prevention funds in its international AIDS relief initiative toward abstinence-only education.

Women are the bellwethers of a society's development; where women are healthy and well-educated, families, communities, and nations are as well. These are values worth promoting, on International Women's Day and every day.

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