International Women's Day on Friday, March 8, is an opportunity to renew focus on the problem of violence against women and girls and their persistent lack of equality around the world, the head of the United Nations Development Programme told Yahoo News.
In an interview, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark pointed to Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head by Taliban gunmen last October for her outspoken support for girls' education.
"She wanted to read and learn and she wanted other girls to read and learn and she ends up the object of a vicious attack," Clark said. " Violence against women doesn't occur in a vacuum. It occurs in the context of girls and women not being considered equal."
The UNDP has made violence against women a central focus of it International Women's Day commemoration this year following the attack on Malala, the brutal gang rape and killing of a woman on a bus in India in December and other atrocities.
The agency has enlisted the help of global celebrities, including Spanish/American actor Antonio Banderas to tape PSAs on the issue of violence against women.
"Real men don't hit women," Banderas says in the PSA, noting the sex trafficking, early marriage and high rates of maternal mortality women and girls face in many countries.
Clark echoed that point.
"Being a girl is being born to suffer," she said, pointing to "female genital mutilation, the marriage where you have no choice, a baby who comes along when your body isn't ready."
While women in the United States and other developed countries may not face the same challenges, their situation isn't ideal either, Clark said.
"It's easier if you're middle class or in the fast lane than if you're on the factory floor," Clark said. "That's where issues like affordable childcare and early childhood education come in, the family friendly workplace, flexibility around children's illnesses. If you don't have it, women—even the brightest and fastest in the lane—make the choice to come out of the lane at greater rates than their male counterparts."
Clark, who served as prime minister of New Zealand from 1999-2008, said women's rights would receive greater focus if more women ran for office.
"Out of sight, out of mind. If you're not in there having an influence, the needs of women don't go adequately addressed," Clark said.
Politics, she said, "is where the decisions are made, where the law is made. If you abandon that, don't be surprised if the results aren't what you want."
Clark said the UNDP would continue to advocate for women's empowerment in developing countries, noting that their economies would grow if women were given broader educational and work opportunities.
"You keep advocating, keep working, and you support the women leaders in countries where their status is less than equal. And things will change," she said.