Millions of women around the world, including those in the UK and other Western countries, are being denied effective representation because of the low numbers of female politicians, judges and employers, the United Nations has warned.
Campaigners say that unless urgent action is taken on the status of women, the Millennium Development Goals on reducing poverty, infant deaths and standards of education will not be met.
To mark International Women's Day, the UN has published a report that says rates of female participation in governments across the developed and developing world are still appallingly low. The report says that for women to be adequately represented in their country, at least 30 per cent of parliamentary seats should have a female representative.
In Britain, only 18 per cent of MPs are women, while only 8 per cent of MPs in Arab countries are female. Just 20 nations - including Rwanda, Mozambique, Guyana and Burundi - have reached or exceeded the 30 per cent mark and only three countries (Chile, Spain and Sweden) have complete gender parity in government.
Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, said: "The rate of progress overall is slow. Women are every bit as affected as any man by the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century - in economic and social development, as well as in peace and security - often they are more affected."
He added: "The world is starting to grasp that there is no policy more effective in promoting development, health and education than the empowerment of women and girls, and no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended."
United Nations figures also show that 70 per cent of the world's 1.2 billion people who are estimated to live in poverty are women and children. A woman dies every minute from complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth, and HIV rates are now rising faster among women than men. Charities say that 700 million women are living without adequate food, water, sanitation and education.
Even in the developed world, women face endemic discrimination. Full-time female workers in Japan earn just 51 per cent of the wages of their male counterparts, while only one in five managers in Italy is a woman and just 14 per cent of the seats in the US Congress are taken by women.
In a speech to mark International Women's Day in Britain, Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, who chairs the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said that girls still suffered from discrimination in schools and work. She told a conference organised by the Aurora Network for women in business that 30 years after the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act in the United Kingdom, women account for half of the working population but for just one in four managers, 9 per cent of the judiciary and 10 per cent of senior police officers.
Lady Judge highlighted the fact that only 14.5 per cent of people employed in the fields of technology and engineering are women, despite evidence that when they do enter the professions, female engineers earn more than men. "Research indicates that those girls that are interested in maths and science are channelled into medicine, nursing and veterinary science because these are perceived as "caring" professions," she said.
"Girls have few role models that show that women can be engineers and there are few companies that provide work experience for women in engineering. If we are to survive as a leading nation in this global- ised world, we must utilise this country's intellectual capability to the fullest extent."
Julia Häusermann, the president of the human rights charity Rights and Humanity, said: "We have much to celebrate on International Women's Day.
"All over the world, women are making progress in political participation, economic empowerment and increased access to education. But wherever we turn, poverty, violence and Aids have a woman's face.
"The empowerment of women is the single most effective tool for development. There is increasing evidence that securing women's rights benefits not just women and their immediate families, but the wider society and national economies."
Women's Day in brief
* Women are better prepared for retirement than men, according to research. Only 16 per cent of women expect to rely on state pensions, compared to 22 per cent of men. One in five women have already consulted their bank about their retirement plans, compared to only 16 per cent of men, a survey for HSBC found.
* An End Violence Against Women campaign by the Fawcett Society today reached its target to get 200 MPs to back an Early Day Motion which calls for the Government to take more action on the issue.
* The Birds Eye View Film Festival, launched today at the NFT, is a female film festival,which features short films, documentaries and feature films, including the Oscar- nominated Badgered by Sharon Colman.
* The yachtswoman Dee Caffari, who left Portsmouth 107 days ago in an attempt to become the first woman to complete the Aviva Challenge - single-handedly sailing against prevailing winds - is expected to finish in May.
* The National Archives in London has digitised more than 7,000 records of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in the years from 1917 to 1920 for Women's Day.Reuse content