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[KUALA LUMPUR] Investing in the education, empowerment and health of women and girls will yield social and economic benefits, especially in developing countries, a conference in Malaysia has heard.

The 3rd Women Deliver conference, which took place in Kuala Lumpur last month (28-30 May), brought together leaders and gender experts from more than 150 countries.

"Today's girls are tomorrow's women — healthy and educated women who can transform the world, have healthier families and are economically more secure, thus leading to stronger communities and more prosperous countries," said the conference's founder and president Jill Sheffield.

There was a general consensus that progress has been made, but that it largely bypasses the marginalised, most vulnerable populations, many of which are in developing countries.

There are also large variations across regions and countries. Gender inequality in education has been reduced in Southeast Asia, but significant gender gaps remain at the secondary and tertiary levels in Cambodia, India and Indonesia.

In a video shown on the first morning of the conference, Hillary Clinton, the former US Secretary of State, said women make up the majority of the world's poor and uneducated. 

"In many places they are the last to be fed, to be schooled, or to receive medical care. Far too many still have little or no access to reproductive health services, including family planning and maternal healthcare. It is no surprise that in societies where women's rights are trampled, we see poverty, political oppression and even violent extremism," she said, adding that conversely, investing in women and girls has a transformative effect on society.

This is especially true in patriarchal communities, where it is difficult to change the mind-set that women are inferior to men, says Remmy Shawa, an international project coordinator at Sonke Gender Justice Network in South Africa.

Shawa emphasises that empowering women does not mean disempowering men.

"We should see how both can work together. The opposite sex account for half the world's population and we cannot deliver for women and girls without engaging men and boys. Women's rights are human rights, and men and boys should have a part to play," Shawa says.

Musimbi Kanyoro, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women cautioned that many programmes to empower women are funded externally, with little national contribution.

"When the funding is over, the community might have examples of what works, but they don't have the resources to take it to a larger scale, or practise what they have learnt. Governments are important here because they have the means to scale things up and to enforce policies that support (the cause)," she said.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.