One of nine children growing up from a small town in an African country, Meaza was told: "Oh, you're so smart and have so much potential, it's too bad you're not a boy." But her mother, who was illiterate, believed her children deserved better. "When I think of my mother, I think about how women are prevented from reaching their potential", she says. "If you're illiterate and send five kids to college, you must have a lot of unused potential." Today, Meaza is a lawyer and a leader in legal advocacy to promote women's rights.

Solutions to gender disparities depend on finding ways to enable women and girls, as well as men and boys, to realize their full potential. While the examples we can point to, in which innovative solutions have been scaled up to become mainstream practice, are few, they are increasing and require greater visibility and investment at all levels.

Midway to the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), finding such solutions is imperative. The 2000 Millennium Declaration recognizes that gender equality is not only a goal in itself but also central to achieving all of the MDGs. Improving gender equality, according to the World Bank, promotes universal primary education, reduces child mortality, improves maternal health and reduces vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. It also influences poverty reduction directly through women's greater labour force participation, productivity and earnings, and indirectly through the impact of women's improved household decision-making on family well-being. In contrast, the disadvantage women face in terms of rights, resources and voice is reflected in their poor performance across many of the MDGs, according to the World Development Report 2007.

On each of the indicators of gender equality, progress is steady but uneven -- and, overall, painfully slow. The greatest advances can be seen in education: by 2005, about 83 of 106 countries with data had met the intermediate target of parity in primary and secondary enrolments. However, there were still 72 million primary school-aged children out of school, of which 57 per cent were girls. Women's participation in paid non-agricultural employment has also increased, albeit slowly, but the persistence of wage gaps, occupational segregation and higher unemployment rates, together with the concentration of women in the informal and subsistence economy, continues to limit their economic advancement, as stated in The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007.

Finally, women's political representation, as measured by share of seats in parliament, has inched up from 12 per cent in 1990 to 17 per cent in 2007. More than 95 countries have voluntary or mandatory measures to increase women's political representation. In 2006, countries with quotas nearly doubled the number of women elected, compared to countries without. In a further reflection of political will, in March 2007, women were presiding parliamentary officers in 35 countries and had achieved full parity in cabinet positions in two States: Chile and Spain.

Improving women's access to political decision-making at the global, regional, national and local levels is an important measure of political will to eliminate gender disparities. Not only are women who assume leadership positions strong role models, helping to challenge gender stereotypes and show what is possible; it is clear that where there is a critical mass of women in decision-making bodies -- whether parliaments, cabinets or boards of directors -- new issues get put on the agenda. Issues of affordable child care, accessible health-care services and other measures to remove constraints to women's full participation in economic and political life are more likely to make it on the political agenda when women are involved in shaping that agenda.

Despite a more favourable policy environment, experience has shown that there is no quick fix to eliminating gender disparities. Solutions must be large-scale and comprehensive, embracing national policy and local practice, as well as individual minds and hearts, to have the impact needed to advance gender equality and realize national development goals, including the MDGs. This conviction is what has guided the work of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Together with national, donor and UN partners, and with women's networks and groups worldwide, we support stronger action on gender equality and women's empowerment along four dimensions of change: strengthened legal and policy frameworks; institutional capacity and processes that are aligned with commitments to further women's human rights; greater civil society capacity to monitor and track progress and demand accountability; and new personal and community relationships that empower women and sustain gender equality.

Three examples of work at the global, national and community levels show what can be done to change the laws, institutions and attitudes that shape women's lives.

Cross-cutting strategies to end violence against women. Perhaps the clearest expression of gender inequality and discrimination is violence against women, which is deeply embedded in all social systems. For the last three decades at least, women's networks and groups have struggled to put ending violence against women on every national and global agenda. Half a million women signed a petition, to the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, demanding that violence against women be recognized as a violation of human rights. Two years later, at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women demanded State accountability for actions to prevent and eliminate violence against women.

In response, the UN General Assembly in 1996 set up the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, a system-wide funding mechanism managed by UNIFEM. Since its establishment, the Trust Fund has supported 263 initiatives in 119 countries. Grantees address the multiple forms of violence that women experience, including home-based violence by family members; violence inflicted through early or forced marriage, and female genital mutilation; violence in situations of conflict and crisis; and violence related to trafficking and HIV/AIDS. Grantees in South America, for instance, devised guidelines for making cities safer for women, which are now being used to improve municipal planning in the region. A grant to a network of HIV-positive women in India enabled them to effectively advocate with authorities to get quality health services and specialized counselling, as well as legal aid for women living with HIV in one state, inspiring the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to support its replication throughout the country. The solutions to gender disparities generated by Trust Fund grantees and many others offer a window into the possibility of change. The challenge is to secure the attention and interest of powerful players, who can ensure they are integrated into national development planning, so that what is achieved in one community is available to the entire country.

Institutional commitment: resources and accountability for gender equality. One of the best ways we can tell if a Government is serious about its commitments, including those relating to women, is to look at its budget priorities and allocations. Although objectives and approaches vary widely, some form of gender-responsive budget initiative has been undertaken in more than 40 countries. In Morocco, where UNIFEM has supported an initiative over the past five years, the Government has institutionalized gender awareness in budget processes, putting money into the implementation of the newly revised Family Code, carrying out a national development strategy that prioritizes reducing feminized poverty and more gender equitable service provision.

Critical to this success is the leadership of the Moroccan Finance Ministry. The national budget circular for 2007 called upon line ministries to include gender in their performance budgeting indicators. The budget reform process specifies gender indicators as part of the expenditure control mechanisms, performance audit and budgetary information system. The extent to which this process has been institutionalized, not only in Morocco but also in Ecuador, Egypt, India and a number of other countries, provides an important model for uniting gender mainstreaming with political will to achieve the MDGs.

Personal and community relations: creating gender-equality zones. The everyday reality of gender relations is most visible at the community level, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic demonstrating the multiple ways in which poverty and gender disparities conspire to fuel its spread. Women are not only becoming infected at greater rates than men, but are also primarily responsible for caregiving for both families and communities, and too frequently have no voice in shaping the policies of treatment and care.

In a rural village in Zimbabwe, UNIFEM took part in a UN inter-agency programme that demonstrated innovative entry points for addressing gender disparities and their link to HIV/AIDS. As part of an initiative on women's empowerment and HIV/AIDS, men formed a group of volunteers to assist sick neighbours. Working with a national men's forum on gender equality, the programme set up training on home-based care and discussion groups on safe sex, providing an opportunity to talk openly about risky behaviour and the use of protection. Men are now playing a greater role in home-based care, and schools have formed girls' clubs to stress zero tolerance for gender-based violence. Women in the community have also taken on new roles, such as starting their own businesses and taking community leadership positions. More and more women are seeking testing and counseling services, a sign that the silence and stigma around this plague are being broken.

There is no shortage of creative and effective solutions to gender disparities. However, to ensure they are large-scale and comprehensive enough to become common practice, we need to take a long, hard look at the extent to which they are receiving the investment needed. In 2008, Governments and civil society will be engaged in a number of discussions about financing and improving development effectiveness, most notably the Ghana High-level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, in September, and the Follow-up International Financing for Development Conference, in Qatar in December. Feeding into these discussions, the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March will focus on financing for gender equality and women's empowerment. In all of these meetings, it is critical that Governments, donors and UN partners understand not only that enhanced development effectiveness is the means of aid effectiveness, but that central to development effectiveness is gender equality and women's empowerment. In so doing, they will take a major step forward to show the world that progress for women is progress for all.