A growing number of countries have adopted population and development policies to meet the health-care and education needs of women. Yet gender inequality persists in most countries around the world. According to the United Nations Population Fund state of world population report for 2005, gender inequality hinders not only the growth of affected individuals but also the evolution of societies and the development of countries.
Greater equality in the power relations between women and men - along with increased access to adequate reproductive health services - would save the lives of thousands of women. Not only does gender inequality directly affect women's health - it also undermines the possibility of reducing their poverty. Several studies have shown that societies with the greatest gender discrimination are poorer, have slower economic growth and lower quality of life than those with with less discrimination.
An estimated 529,000 women died from complications of pregnancy and childbirth in 2000. That is the equivalent of one maternal death every minute, almost all in developing countries. And for every woman who dies during pregnancy and delivery, approximately 20 more suffer serious harm - adding up to between 10 and 20 million injuries a year. And yet 99 percent of maternal deaths during pregnancy and delivery are preventable. Maternal deaths are practically nonexistent in industrialized countries.
Maternal death has both immediate and long-term consequences on families and communities. The death of a mother increases the risks of infant and child mortality. Because of their role in maintaining family cohesion, the death of a mother can have devastating psychological and economic consequences affecting the futures of surviving family members.
There are also significant gender disparities in education. There are about 600 million illiterate women in the world, compared with about 320 million men. True, a greater number of the world's women now have access to education than ever before - but still, only 69 percent of girls in Southern Asia and 49 percent in sub-Saharan Africa are able to complete primary school. The percentages are even lower for secondary education.
Better education for women is associated with better economic prospects, better reproductive health, and higher awareness of the dangers posed by risky behaviors that lead to HIV/AIDS. Children of educated mothers also benefit, since for every year of a mother's education there is a 5 to 10 percent drop in the risk of a child dying before his or her fifth birthday.
Good reproductive health can also result in economic benefits through what has been called the "demographic dividend." Smaller families mean that a higher proportion of young parents enter their reproductive years with fewer dependents to support. Smaller families mean slower population growth, which in turn diminishes competition for natural resources. Economists attribute the unprecedented growth of East Asian economies between 1965 and 1990 to a lower birthrate.
Much of women's work is still unrecognized and poorly paid, even though in developing countries rural women are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of food production. According to the World Bank, women still earn an average of 75 percent of men's pay for the same jobs.
Violence against women continues to be a curse worldwide, affecting all societies and all social strata. The toll of violence on women's health is greater than that of traffic accidents and malaria combined. Gender-based violence can take many forms and includes domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation, and "honor" and dowry-related killings.
To achieve a more equal and just society means addressing all forms of gender inequality, which in turn can improve access to health care, to economic and educational opportunities and lead to greater respect for every woman's human rights.
Ensuring equality of rights between men and women in terms of education, health, jobs, property and credit, as well as fostering women's participation in public life, will help reduce child mortality, improve public health, slow population growth, and stimulate economic growth. Societies should be judged for their efforts in these directions - and censured for their lack of effort.
César Chelala is an international public-health consultant and the author of "Maternal Health," a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.
© 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer