The U.N. Population Fund's annual State of World Population report said "gender apartheid" could scuttle the global body's goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015.
"We cannot make poverty history until we stop violence against women and girls," the fund's executive director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, said at the report's launch in London. "We cannot make poverty history until women enjoy their full social, cultural, economic and political rights."
The report said gender equality and better reproductive health could save the lives of 2 million women and 30 million children over the next decade, and help lift millions around the world out of poverty.
In 2000, the U.N. agreed to eight Millennium Development Goals, which include halving extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education and stemming the AIDS pandemic, all by 2015.
The report said one of the targets, promoting gender equality and empowering women, is "critical to the success of the other seven."
Gender discrimination, the report said, lowered productivity and increased health care costs and mortality. Improving women's political, economic and education opportunities would lead to "improved economic prospects, smaller families, healthier and more literate children, lower HIV prevalence rates and reduced incidence of harmful traditional practices."
But for many women around the world, the U.N. agency said, the picture remains grim.
It calculated that 250 million years of productive life are lost annually because of reproductive health problems including HIV/AIDS, the leading cause of death among women between 15 and 44. Half the 40 million people infected with HIV around the world are women, and in sub-Saharan Africa women make up a majority of those infected.
Lack of contraception leads to 76 million unintended pregnancies in the developing world and 19 million unsafe abortions around the world each year, the agency said. More than half a million women die each year from preventable pregnancy-related causes, a figure that has changed little in a decade. I.L.