Leading article: Give women their rights - and raise a continent

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The Independent Online

What's black and white and (RED) all over? We live in a world of increasing sophistication and interconnectedness in which the issues of international politics can seem dauntingly complex. It is as well then sometimes to remind ourselves - as we do today with this second (RED) edition of The Independent where half of the revenue the newspaper makes today will be donated to the Global Fund to fight Aids - that there are some stark simplicities too. And that when it comes to Africa some things are, all too literally, black and white - as the scale of global inequality dramatically reveals.

The statistics we set out in our coverage today tell a simple enough story. Had the white woman on our front page really been a black African she would work at least three hours longer every day; she would most likely be illiterate, be 200 times more likely to die in childbirth - and be a million times more likely to be HIV positive. Based on average expectancy, her life would be almost over rather than not yet halfway through.

The (RED) project is one response to this shocking disparity. Through it a number of multinational companies commit to giving a cut of their profits on certain tailored products to fighting Africa's top killer disease. All the consumer has to do is buy. It is a great idea - allowing ordinary people to do their bit to help, via a daily part of their everyday lives - shopping for a better world.

But we all know it will take more than a bit of enlightened shopping to right some of the wrongs of the people of Africa. Consider the continent's women - who produce 70 per cent of Africa's food and yet own less than 1 per cent of its property. Addressing their plight is not just a question of natural justice. It is what will drive the process of development in Africa.

Women are the backbone of Africa's economy. They do most of the farming, herding and selling. They cook, fetch water, gather firewood, rear children and care for the sick and elderly. They are the pivots of the informal economy; a survey in Benin showed that women traders represent more than 90 per cent of the informal economy. Yet women are excluded from decision-making or owning land because they are often illiterate, they lack confidence and they have no political clout. Many African governments - run by men - let women's rights to education, healthcare, legal status, political representation and fair pay languish at the bottom of their list of priorities.

Nowhere is this clearer than in education. All the studies show that, when girls are schooled, everything improves. They earn more money. Infant mortality drops; health and nutrition improve. The spread of HIV is reduced. Economic productivity rises. Money spent on the education of girls is the strongest investment in the next generation. Some progress has been made on education in Africa. The number of children in primary school increased by 48 per cent between 1990 and 2001. But girls are still lagging behind.

Africa's governments need to set education as a priority. But they cannot do it without the money. It will cost about $10bn (£5.3bn) a year to get all Africa's children, girls included, in school. This is but a fraction of the increase the rich world pledged at Gleneagles last year, saying it would lift aid to $50bn a year by 2010. Now they need to deliver. In May, Gordon Brown announced that the UK would allocate £8.5bn towards that over the next 10 years. That is about 15 per cent of the amount required. Other rich nations must provide matching sums.

It sounds like a lot of money. But $10bn a year is roughly what the world lays out in a week on global military spending. Some things really are that black and white.