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International Women's Day: 8 March

International Women's Day, since its inauguration in 1911, celebrates the achievements of women, and promotes their freedom, and social and economic equality.

Its origins in labour movements, protesting poor working conditions and low wages in the textile industry, are still relevant today. In many parts of the world women still struggle for recognition of their value to the economy, and for equal pay. Poverty rates are highest in female-headed households with children.

This year, as we move towards the World Summit on Sustainable Development, it is fitting that women's contribution to development should be acknowledged. Their potential to drive change should be recognized. In many places, although women have yet to gain equality, they are helping to move their families and communities out of poverty. With a little more support, so much more could be achieved.

Water is of great importance to sustainable development. Women often shoulder the responsibility for household water supply and purification. This may mean walking many hours per day, time and energy, which could be more usefully devoted to educating children, or on income earning activities. There must be investment in integrated water resources management, to release this energy.

In developing countries, women are responsible for up to 80% of food production. These women are the most severely affected by natural disasters and climate change. In an attempt to provide for their families, they are the first to go hungry. Food security must feature on the Johannesburg agenda.

The use of traditional biomass energy has a profound effect on women's health. Exposure to high indoor smoke levels results in lung disease and pregnancy related problems. These women also spend a significant amount of their time and energy carrying heavy loads of fuel, which affects their health too. Renewable energy, at an affordable price, is essential to free women from this burden and enable economic development.

Sustainable development can only be achieved if there is equality for women. Women can only realize their true potential, if they have access to education and play a full role in the communities' decision-making processes. Their understanding of the environment and its problems, and their role as educators, has to be used to ensure that the environment as a resource is valued and respected, and used for the benefit of all.

The Platform for Action, adopted in Beijing in 1995, calls for greater recognition of women as guardians of the environment. It calls for enhanced participation of women in the management of environmental resources and the reduction of environmental risks to women. I urge governments, the private sector and individuals to work together to move beyond rhetoric and take ACTION to improve the quality of life of women everywhere.