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Push for Change on Women's Rights

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It's my last day at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, and I've started the day speaking at a breakfast reception for Afghan women.

Under the Taleban, Afghan women suffered some of the worst oppression in the world. To this day the situation remains challenging.

According to the UN's 2011 Gender Equality Index, Afghan women's status ranked amongst the worst in the world - rated 141th out of 146. A shocking 87% of Afghan women have experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage.

Nevertheless, I am heartened by the progress the international community has made in partnership with Afghanistan in the last decade. Almost 40% of children regularly attending school are girls - up from virtually nil in 2001. Almost one in two pregnant women receives antenatal care now - compared with only one in six in 2003. And women hold over a quarter of seats in the Afghan Parliament.

My colleague Justine Greening made it clear on Monday that we will do whatever the UK can to ensure the gains for girls and women in Afghanistan are not lost. As part of this effort, we are making tackling violence against women and girls in Afghanistan a strategic priority for the Department For International Development's (DFID) country programmes.

Bringing about change is a long-term task, in which girls' education, economic opportunities and women's representation and rights are all key.

This is why the UK's programmes and the benefits they bring to Afghan women and girls will continue long after British troops come home in 2014.

Ending early marriage

One in nine girls will marry before their 15th birthday. For those girls, their childhood will be cut short and their chances of an education, a job and enjoying the delights of safe motherhood will be dashed. In short, early marriage is bad for girls and bad for development.

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UK aid is supporting UNICEF to run Girl and Boy Education Movement's in schools in South Africa to raise awareness about issues affecting young people. Picture: Lindsay Mgbor/DFID

At an event hosted by World Vision, I set out how the Coalition Government is working hard to tackle this issue.

We know that education is the single most important factor in reducing child marriage. That's why in 2011 the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched DFID's Girls' Education Challenge, which commits us to help up to 1 million of the world's poorest girls in 22 focus countries get into school. Nick and I launched two of these country programmes on our recent visit to Mozambique and Ethiopia.

We also know that communities are key to changing attitudes and behaviours towards girls and women, so for example in Ethiopia DFID is working with religious leaders, families, boys, men, the media and schools to change how they view early marriage.

There is no silver bullet for ending early marriage - no complex issue has an easy solution. But all countries have a role to play and we can all work in a direction to build on each other's successes.

UK commitment to end gender-based violence

My time at this session of the Commission on the Status of Women is drawing to a close. After three packed days of individual meetings with African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, and speaking at eight panel events on an array of issues, I come away inspired and with renewed hope for tackling violence against women worldwide.

And I'm proud that the UK's efforts are inspiring others in kind.

I've just been at my last panel event and Dutch MP Jet Bussemaker and I presented adverts running in our respective countries, designed to change young people's perceptions about violence and abuse in their relationships. In the UK our adverts have reached more young people than many expected and I hope these efforts can be replicated with great effect in other countries.

CSW continues for another week and it is vital that by the end of the session a common set of global standards to protect women and girls is agreed. It isn't easy. Last year, for the first time ever, no Agreed Conclusions emerged.

So I've been sending clear signals here in New York that the UK is 100% committed to pushing forward global action to stop gender-based violence. For all our sakes - and for the future of the multilateral system - I hope this year will be a success.

Take a look at this map which shows UK government action to support and empower women across the globe.

Join our Facebook campaign to end violence against girls and women and call on the UN to take action.

Read our feature and stories on how UK aid is working to prevent violence against girls and women and see our South Africa picture gallery on how we're working to protect vulnerable children from violence.

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