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(May 2005) A decade ago, governments and women’s rights activists from around the globe gathered for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, calling for the advancement and empowerment of girls and women. Since that time, gathering data about women—especially about their health, education, and political and economic status—has become a central part of the effort to monitor our progress on the Beijing plan of action.

To contribute to these monitoring efforts, this year’s Women of Our World 2005 data sheet, the fourth edition published by the Population Reference Bureau since 1995, provides updated estimates on women’s status and progress in reproductive health, education, work, and public life. The new PRB policy brief, Taking Stock of Women’s Progress, summarizes the findings of the data sheet.

Representatives of national governments and advocacy groups that will be meeting this month in New York to review the progress since Beijing have reason for both optimism and concern. On the positive side, girls and women in developing countries have seen gains in a number of commonly measured indicators over the past decade:

  • Girls’ school enrollments have risen markedly in most developing countries, and at the secondary school level are now are about 90 percent of boys’ enrollments;
  • Modern contraceptive use has risen steadily and births per woman have declined in all but a handful of developing countries;
  • Women’s share of the non-farm workforce has edged up slightly in countries where data is available; and
  • Women’s share of seats in national parliaments has also risen worldwide, although that share is still quite low.

The gains in school enrollments are especially notable. They reflect fairly deliberate and widespread government investments in girls. And the increased education of those girls will have spillover benefits for economies and societies. Girls who stay in school longer tend to marry later, have children later, and bring more skills to the workforce.

But women everywhere still face social and economic disadvantages relative to men, and inequalities are most acute in the poorest countries:

  • Girls’ literacy and schooling lag well behind boys in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and childbearing begins early in this region;
  • Women hold fewer than 20 percent of seats in national parliaments in much of the world, including more developed countries;
  • Deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth—notoriously difficult to estimate—show no signs of abating in poor countries; and
  • Women make up more than one-half of adults infected with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and some countries in the Caribbean, where AIDS is spread largely through heterosexual contact.

The data in Women of the World 2005 provide a snapshot of women’s situations in those areas that are most easily measured. The data do not capture all aspects of women’s position relative to men, nor do they cover other issues such as the exploitation, abuse of, and violence against women—likely to be hot topics when delegates meet to review progress toward Beijing’s goals. But eliminating these and other forms of gender-based discrimination is essential for increasing women’s contributions to economic and social development.

Lori S. Ashford is technical director for policy information at PRB.