Wikimedia Commons Woman Suffrage Headquarters, Cleveland, 1913.

The Payoff From Women's Rights

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THE COST OF INEQUALITY

Over the past decade, significant research has demonstrated what many have known for a long time: women are critical to economic development, active civil society, and good governance, especially in developing countries. Focusing on women is often the best way to reduce birth rates and child mortality; improve health, nutrition, and education; stem the spread of HIV/AIDS; build robust and self-sustaining community organizations; and encourage grassroots democracy.

Much like human rights a generation ago, women's rights were long considered too controversial for mainstream foreign policy. For decades, international development agencies skirted gender issues in highly patriarchal societies. Now, however, they increasingly see women's empowerment as critical to their mandate. The Asian Development Bank is promoting gender-sensitive judicial and police reforms in Pakistan, for example, and the World Bank supports training for female political candidates in Morocco. The United States, too, is increasingly embracing women's rights, as a way not only to foster democracy, but also to promote development, curb extremism, and fight terrorism, all core strategic objectives.

Women's status has advanced in many countries: gender gaps in infant mortality rates, calorie consumption, school enrollment, literacy levels, access to health care, and political participation have narrowed steadily. And those changes have benefited society at large, improving living standards, increasing social entrepreneurship, and attracting foreign direct investment.

Yet significant gender disparities continue to exist, and in some cases, to grow, in three regions: southern Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. Although the constraints on women living in these areas -- conservative, patriarchal practices, often reinforced by religious values -- are increasingly recognized as a drag on development, empowering women is still considered a subversive proposition. In some societies, women's rights are at the front line of a protracted battle between religious extremists and those with more moderate,

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