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Out of the 800 million adults worldwide who cannot read, the majority are women, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said on Sunday evening during a brief visit to Israel.
Similarly, among the 100 million children who are not in school, the majority are girls, Migiro added.
She was one of two keynote speakers to open "Women's Leadership for Sustainable Development," a five-day conference at the Foreign Ministry that has drawn 70 key women from 58 countries, including the president of the Republic of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Migiro warned that many countries are not close to meeting the United Nations millennium development goals set for 2015, which among other things call to eradicate extreme poverty, improve maternal health and promote gender equality.
"In spite of considerable efforts, many countries are not on track. We must redouble our efforts in the seven years that remain," Migiro said.
Johnson-Sirleaf added that there was a link between poverty and poor conditions for women.
Women earn three-quarters of the living wage that men do and if one calculated the value, their unpaid housework would equal trillions of dollars.
Johnson-Sirleaf noted that 70 percent of those living in poverty are women.
But on a positive note, Johnson-Sirleaf said that women have progressed in the last few decades by expanding their presence in higher level jobs and in leadership roles.
"There has been a tidal wave of revolutionary change and many in the room bear testimony to the sea change," Johnson-Sirleaf said.
"Women are not only breaking the glass ceiling - we are shattering it," she added.
More women are in school and in the workforce and many countries are introducing laws that protect women's rights, including in areas of rape and domestic violence, Johnson-Sirleaf said.
In 2006, women held 17% of the parliamentary seats in the world, up by 10% from three years ago, she said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that female empowerment is not only a women's issue, as the status of women characterizes society as a whole.
"Women leaders reached positions of leadership for various reasons. I myself entered politics in order to promote the peace process," Livni said.
But she added that she still felt an additional responsibility to promote women's issues as well.
"In order to make a genuine change, we need to awaken both our global conscience and national commitment," Livni said.
She noted that the conference marked the 50th anniversary of Israel's International Development Cooperation Program, known as Mashav, which was established by former prime minister Golda Meir.
The program reached out to developing countries, particularly in Africa, at a time when Israel itself was still a fledgling nation.
"Over time it blossomed and has become to this very day an extensive program of cooperation operating throughout the developing world with the aim of promoting sustainable development and social equity," said Livni.
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