This year’s United Nations General Assembly focuses on the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and inclusive development goals for persons with disabilities. 

Alex Thier is Assistant to the Administrator for Policy, Planning, and Learning

Alex Thier is Assistant to the Administrator for Policy, Planning, and Learning. Follow him at @thieristan

Elevating the political, social, and economic status of women and girls is a central and indispensable element of global progress towards creating a more prosperous, peaceful, and equitable world, and ending extreme poverty within our lifetime.

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000 focus heavily on advancing women and girls (and intensively tracking that progress). And, as today’s USAID and UK’s Department for International Development event on Girls and Women Transforming Societies demonstrates, we’re making some astonishing progress.

Look for example in sub-Saharan Africa: net primary education enrollment for girls has risen substantially from 47 percent in 1990 to 75 percent in 2011. While a Gender Disparity Index shows only slight increases in secondary education in the same region – from .76 to .83, women are gaining ground in non-agricultural work employment, increasing a workforce presence from 24 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 2011.

Some countries, like Afghanistan, have made enormous transformations in access to education. In 2002, 900,000 boys were in school and virtually no girls attended due to a Taliban prohibition. As of 2012 over eight million students were enrolled in Afghan schools with girls accounting for over one third.

Similarly, the maternal death rate in sub-Saharan Africa has significantly dropped by 20 years – an estimated 41 per cent. Figures released by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank showed the 1990 rate of 850 deaths per 100,000 live births declined to a regional average of 500 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2010.

There is still enormous progress to be made, and in many areas the world we are still well short of the MDGs. But what this progress shows us is that these goals are achievable, and that as goes the welfare of women and girls, so goes the welfare of their societies.

In that sense, one of the most important advances may be in the area of women’s political representation. Since 2000, the proportion of women in parliaments in the developing world has increased by two-thirds, although it remains at only 20 percent. Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide. Women there have won 56.3 per cent of seats in the lower house. Increasing women’s political participation can benefit issues that may be over looked by exclusively male decision makers. For example, research on panchayats (local councils) in India revealed that the number of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils was 62 per cent higher than in those with male-led councils.

But, much more needs to be done. Improvements in employment and women’s reproductive health still lag. Women still are more likely to work in the informal economy, earn less than men, and be over-represented in low-wage jobs. For too many women, the process of childbirth is unsafe or results in the death of mother or child.

One thing we do know for certain though – the only way to bring people out of extreme poverty is to include and empower women in broad based economic growth and to close the economic gaps between women and men. Without inclusive practices that promote gender equality and female empowerment, extreme poverty is sure to persist well beyond the next generation.

Today’s event in New York City illustrates how women’s leadership in grassroots advocacy, local solutions and the power of technology can steer the global community on the path to meeting our MDG goals and advancing gender equality and female empowerment in the post-2015 framework.

Learn more about USAID’s work in education.

Learn more about USAID’s role in this year’s United Nations General Assembly. Follow @USAID, @thieristan, and @RajShah for ongoing updates during the week and join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtags #UNGA and #UNGA2013.