During the past two weeks, delegates from around the world met in New York for the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to discuss the challenges and achievements of addressing gender inequality while implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Since these goals were introduced in 2000, significant progress has been made to improve the lives of millions of people around the world. For example, the rate of child mortality is expected to have reduced by two-thirds by next year and much progress has been made with regards to dealing with HIV-related stigma, prevention and access to treatment.
However, violence against women and girls, women's limited access to assets and the violation of women and girls' sexual and reproductive health and rights continue to perpetuate poverty and have been an issue notably absent from global agreements.
This must be addressed if we're to eradicate poverty in our lifetime.
Representatives of Christian Aid and many of its partners, including Brazilian faith-based organisation SADD, travelled to New York to take part in the discussions and share their experiences and thoughts on how to make the world a better place for women.
In Brazil a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds; every two hours a woman is murdered; and within the past three decades at least 92,000 Brazilian women have been killed inside their homes at the hands of a partner. Yet, instead of talking to friends and loved ones about their hardship, they keep it a secret.
Rev. Elineide Ferreira, a 27-year-old priest from the northern Brazilian state of Rondonia, who works with SADD, was shocked when women started telling her about their violent husbands.
Although there are laws against gender based violence in Brazil, there's often little support for women who experience physical violence, a situation perpetuated by both the machismo culture and teachings of some more conservative faith leaders. She discovered that many people consider it to be 'normal' behaviour and a private affair between a man and his wife that is rarely discussed in public.
Keen to support such women, Elineide called on her community to come together to offer women a safe place to go in their hour of need. Consequently she set up a refuge for abused women to allow them to have the opportunity to escape their violent home lives.
World leaders should be taking their lead from people like Elineide who are prepared to challenge cultural norms to give women the rights and opportunities they deserve. They need to address the problems that arise from the often negative role faith and cultural norms play in reproducing violence against women and girls, not just at a local level, but also on the international stage.
Sandra Andrade, SADD's coordinator, flew to New York to join other women of different faiths and Christian denominations to discuss how to address gender inequality through the eyes of religion. This was important as 70% of the world regard themselves as religious, so theoretically many people interpret gender inequality through the lens of their faith.
Sandra spoke of the importance of a commitment to value and empower women in a bid to reduce world poverty, promote peace, and strengthen education and child health. As the example of Rev. Elineide Ferreira in Brazil shows it is often women who can pave the way for other women, especially in cultures where men remain silent about women affected by violence.
While many faith leaders are doing much to address violence against women and girls and understand their critical role in reversing damaging gender norms, challenging cultural and religious norms remain a thorn in the side of progress. By speaking up, faith leaders, who are often an influential centre of a community, make it easier for communities to speak out too. By taking action they can break the silence and embrace victims of violence. All too often the Church may be the only place some women can turn to in the hope that they can transform their lives.
It is just as important to engage men and boys in these discussions. By learning about the damaging effects of cultural practices such as favouring boys over girls in education, early or forced marriage and financial autonomy, men and boys can change their attitudes and play a vital role in giving women a voice, as well as changing society for the better.
Sandra explained that by speaking to people from other countries, she learned it is clear that we are still far from solving the problem of violence against women. It will take global commitment and hard work to change some cultural norms that are ingrained within many societies.
Christian Aid welcomes the strong support witnessed during the two-week long discussions at the CSW for a standalone goal on gender equality, women's empowerment and human rights of women, within the post-2015 targets (which will follow the MDGs) , but this is only part of the picture. World leaders must set out clear priorities in their plans to follow the MDGs, including eradicating violence against women and girls, promoting economic freedom for women and involving women at every level of decision-making.
Empowered women will not only transform their own lives, but those of their families and communities and world leaders owe it to them to support the changes that are needed to make this happen.