8 March 2008Top United Nations officials commemorated this year’s International Women’s Day by calling on countries to invest more in women and girls, warning that failing to do so will undermine efforts to achieve global development targets. In his message for the Day, Secretary-General drew attention to the “serious” gap between policy and practice in many countries when it comes to gender equality, as reflected in a lack of resources and insufficient budgetary allocations. “This failure of funding undermines not only our endeavours for gender equality and women’s empowerment as such; it also holds back our efforts to reach all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” he said, referring to the global pledges to slash poverty and other social ills, all by 2015. “As we know from long and indisputable experience, investing in women and girls has a multiplier effect on productivity and sustained economic growth,” he added, noting that no measure is more important in advancing education and health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS, or as likely to improve nutrition, or reduce infant and maternal mortality.Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), agreed that “if we want to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, we need more investments in women and girls.“Whether we are looking at it from a human rights, political or economic point of view, the conclusion is the same: It makes sense to invest in women. The returns are high for women themselves and for the world at large,” she said. However, not only were investments still not being made to the extent they should be, they were actually declining in some areas, such as maternal health and family planning. “Improving women’s well-being cannot be accomplished without improving their health, particularly their reproductive health,” she stressed, noting that by ensuring universal access to reproductive health, it will be possible to reduce poverty, reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, and meet the need for family planning. “By investing in women’s reproductive health and well-being, we will stand a better chance of achieving the MDGs and making gender equality a reality.”Part of the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality is the urgent need to end violence against women in all of its forms, a point highlighted by the acting Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), who drew attention to the UN campaign launched by the Secretary-General on 25 February, UNiTE to End Violence against Women. “The campaign will add value and visibility to the efforts that Governments, women’s and other civil society organizations, UN and donor partners are making to combat gender-based violence and send the message that ending violence against women stands on par with other critical development goals,” said Joanne Sandler.She added that it also comes at a time when the world’s leaders are renewing their commitment to financing for all national development goals, including the MDGs.“Ending violence against women was a missing indicator in the MDGs, owing to the lack of comparable data,” she stated. “It is encouraging, therefore, that the United Nations has also committed to assist countries in efforts to generate the data needed to measure the extent of violence against women and girls. “Together with proven evidence of what works and the financial and technical resources needed to support countries to meet the implementation challenge, there may indeed be an end in sight to the pandemic of violence against women and girls ? and genuine progress on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment,” Ms. Sandler said.From Afghanistan to Sudan, women around the world are celebrating the Day through events at the local and national levels. In the strife-torn Sudanese region of Darfur, staff of the new African Union-UN mission there (UNAMID) handed out T-shirts and posters to women in the central market in El Fasher, and held a procession along with Sudanese female police officers and local residents. Hundreds of women in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar marched for peace, while their sisters in the capital gathered in Kabul’s women’s garden to mark the Day with a UN agency fair, which included films and a performance by child artists. Female counsellors from UN agencies were also on hand to provide advice on health, education and social issues facing the country’s women.