Half way around the world at the 2013 Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, government leaders, NGO representatives, corporate leaders and other health-focused groups have come together to use their collective voice to call for action to improve the health and well-being of girls and women.  At the conference Lakshmi Puri, Acting Head of UN Women, summed it up best when she said, “It is time to move sexual and reproductive health, women’s rights and gender equality from the sidelines to the center of the frame, to the center of all discussions.”

Movement is needed more than ever because women around the world face urgent health challenges.  When it comes to the issue of sexual assault in particular, the statistics are so shocking and jaw-dropping that they bear repeating, over and over, until governments and law enforcement around the world get serious about protecting the lives of women and girls and holding perpetrators accountable for their crimes:

  • One out of three women under the age of 18 will encounter gender-based violence including rape, sexual assault or domestic violence.
  • In the United States, a woman is raped every two minutes and beaten every nine seconds.
  • Simply being born a girl puts you at risk for violence: World Bank data suggests women ages 15-44 are more at risk of rape and domestic violence than they are of cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.

For as long as I can remember, I have been an advocate for supporting female rights and ending violence against women and girls. Very early on, I recognized an imbalance of power and equality in relationships around me. In high school, I helped create the first teen dating violence curriculum for our suburban Chicago community; in college, I became a certified rape crisis counselor, providing direct advocacy to victims after an assault.  In my career as the CEO of Lifeway Foods, I initiated a maternal health campaign with Every Mother Counts, Christy Turlington Burns’ nonprofit created to raise awareness of and improve maternal health globally.

           In photo: A mother and child at the Mobarakpur Community Clinic in Kulaura Upazila, northeastern Bangladesh. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

This year, I joined the UN Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurs Council in an effort to support the UN through the lens of an entrepreneur, and I launched my own non-profit and advocacy group called Test400k to end the backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits around the country.

I have lost count of how many stories of sexual assault and violence I have personally heard over the years.  Time after time, the voices of girls and women are ignored, discounted and shelved away in a storage locker, collecting dust for decades.  This is outrageous, and it’s wrong.

When women are not in control of their sexual encounters, they are at risk for unwanted pregnancy – limiting their access to education, employment, and economic opportunities, and costing nations billions of dollars. Violence during pregnancy has been associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes such as low birth weight, premature labor, preterm delivery, miscarriage, and fetal loss.

It’s time for each of us to speak out and demand change for women.  We must work to end the epidemic of violence against women.  At the same time, we must also ensure women have access to the sexual and reproductive health services and information they need.

Millennium Development Goal 5, which focuses on improving maternal health, is the furthest behind in terms of progress.  While it calls for universal access to reproductive health to allow women to plan the number and spacing of their pregnancies, currently, 222 million women still have an unmet need for modern contraception.  The delegates at Women Deliver are exploring how we can continue to address and reduce this unmet need to meet MDG 5 – and in doing so, ensure that women around the world have safe, healthy and wanted pregnancies.

As Puri said, “Investing in women and gender equality and women’s rights as much as in sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls is the highest return investment you can make.”

It’s true, investments in the health, safety, education, empowerment, and rights of girls and women worldwide will reap significant benefits for communities and nations. (This is the premise of the outstanding Girl Rising documentary, which I encourage you to watch.) Healthy girls are more likely to attend school, have safe pregnancies and deliveries, and grow up to raise healthy, educated children. They are also powerful drivers of development; their unpaid work at home and on the farm generates approximately one-third of global GDP. Simply put, when girls and women thrive, their families, communities, and countries thrive with them.

Progress in empowering women and girls requires challenging profound deep-rooted social, cultural and religious norms about women and men and their roles in society. It will require high-level political leadership and sweeping commitments by governments nationally and around the world. We must encourage innovative initiatives – scaling what works and utilizing everything from technology to micro-credit to awareness campaigns demanding true justice and equality for girls and women. As the Prime Minister of Malaysia said in his keynote speech at the opening of the Women Deliver conference: “Now is the time to deliver for women and girls.”

Follow the 2013 Women Deliver conversation online using the hash tag #WD2013