By Ambassador Melanne Verveer and Mayesha Alam

Originally posted in The Guardian here.

There is a plethora of data which demonstrates that women’s economic participation grows economies, creates jobs and builds inclusive prosperity. As essential as women’s equality is for growth, it is often stymied by discriminatory laws, customs, and structural barriers that restrict women from full participating in the formal economy. In no country is the gender equality gap completely closed.

In the United States, women still do not receive equal pay for equal work. The pay gap has barely changed in a decade, it exists in nearly every occupation and it is exacerbated for women of color and older women. The lack of paid maternity leave makes it difficult for women to have children and also work outside the home. The resulting loss of income hurts families and the larger economy.

The international community has acknowledged the essential role that women play in peace and prosperity, which is particularly evident in conflict zones. Secretary of State John Kerry noted, “Countries that value and empower women to participate fully in decision-making are more stable, prosperous and secure. The opposite is also true. When women are excluded from negotiations, the peace that follows is more tenuous. Trust is eroded, and human rights and accountability are often ignored”.

For countries emerging out of conflict, women’s access to jobs and markets is essential to ensuring stability. Peace agreements alone do not bring security; employment brings stability that is critical to security. Access to a sustainable livelihood is especially important for women survivors of conflict who must care for themselves and dependents such as children and elderly parents.

We have seen an example of progress in the Philippines – where women have helped lead peace negotiations that culminated in a historic agreement between the government and rebel forces in the Mindanao region. There, for the first time ever, a woman was the chief signatory to a peace agreement in 2014. Women continue to be seen and treated as merely victims during armed conflict and while they are subjected to unique and disproportionate harms – including sexual violence – they also represent the greatest untapped resource to creating a more peaceful world.

Women’s political participation has been the area where progress has been slowest, even while other indicators have improved. Rates of women’s participation in parliaments and as heads of state are low in both the US and internationally. Rwanda serves an example of success, where women have led the charge to transform their country after the horrific 1994 genocide; it is the only country in the world with a higher percentage of female parliamentarians (64%).

Where women and girls can access education and employment alongside men and boys, countries are more likely to prosper. Yet women in many countries still lack access to education and vocational training. In Pakistan and Nigeria, extremists threaten and commit violence against girls seeking to go to school. In Afghanistan, girls’ enrollment in primary education has increased drastically in the last decade but there has been less progress on higher education for women. Lack of access to education is exacerbated in refugee settings and for internally displaced persons while child marriage continues to disempower young women and undercut their potential to live productive and happy lives.

As we mark International Women’s Day, we should act on our collective unfinished agenda, wherever we live. Despite the genuine progress that has been achieved, our work remains incomplete. Even where laws exist to protect women from harm, enforcement is often lacking. Moreover, gains have been uneven, not only from one geographic region to another but within countries across urban and rural divides.

Empowering women and girls worldwide is strategic and smart. No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its population behind. This is the great, unfinished agenda of the 21st century.