Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon marked the 15th anniversary of a “watershed” U.N. conference that called for women’s equality by urging all countries Monday to renew their commitment to educate girls, end sexual violence, and provide access to modern birth control.

Speaking at the General Assembly’s commemoration of the 1994 U.N. population conference, the U.N. chief hailed the progress achieved since the Cairo meeting but acknowledged that many problems remain.

For many people, he lamented, the action plan adopted by 180 governments “remains more a goal than a reality.”

Underlying the conference was the record growth in global population, and research that showed that educated women choose to have fewer children. In 1994, the world’s population was 5.7 billion. According to the latest U.N. estimates, it will hit 7 billion early in 2012 and top 9 billion in 2050.

Ban said the conference “grappled with some of the most sensitive issues of our day” and endorsed gender equality, universal education especially for girls, economic empowerment for women, and the right for women to choose if and when to become pregnant.

“Fifteen years ago in Cairo, for the first time, governments acknowledged that every person has the right to sexual and reproductive health,” the secretary-general said.

On the plus side, Ban said, more women and couples use modern contraception today -- 56 percent compared with 47 percent in 1994. The number of babies that died during their first year of life has dropped from 71 out of every 1,000 in 1994 to 51 per thousand today, he said.

But the secretary-general said some 200 million women still don’t have access “to safe and effective contraception,” too many women resort to abortions because they lack access to family planning, girls are still married off as child brides in too many countries, and sexual violence, especially in war, “continues to victimize women on a mass scale.”

Since the Cairo conference, Ban lamented, the number of deaths in childbirth -- more than 500,000 women annually -- has not changed.

“To fully carry out the Cairo program of action means providing women with reproductive health services, including family planning,” he said. “It means backing poverty-eradication initiatives. And it means preventing rape during wartime and ending the culture of impunity.”

The secretary-general said all these actions require funding and he urged government not “to renege on our promises to protect and invest in women” because of the global economic crisis.

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