Women’s rights are an essential part of universal human rights. They form a central principle of the United Nations, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. And yet, the fact remains that women and girls around the world often face gender-based discrimination that puts them at increased risk of a poor education, poverty, ill health and violence.

Here in Pakistan, two-thirds of the country’s 60 million women of working age - the size of the entire UK population - can’t read or write, 12,000 women die every year in childbirth and more than nine million girls do not go to school. Pakistan is missing out on the talent and productivity of half of its population. A recent survey revealed Pakistan is the third most dangerous country in the world for women due to the prevalence of honour killings, forced marriage, rape, and other violence. Lack of economic opportunities, difficulty in accessing education and health facilities and under-representation in politics and decision-making have all contributed to Pakistan’s position of 135 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Pakistan recognises the problem and is working hard, often with the help of international donors like my Government, to address it.

During my first six months in Pakistan I have seen that Pakistan recognises the challenge ahead and has shown a strong commitment to deliver improvements. Pakistan has introduced important legislation at both the federal and provincial level to help protect women and strengthen their rights. A number of important bills have been approved over recent years including the bills for prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace, acid crimes and domestic violence. The British Government welcomes these important first steps which are complemented by existing UK work to allow girls and women to have the opportunity to achieve their potential free from discrimination and violence. But many challenges and obstacles of course remain.

On International Women’s Day, which we celebrate today, we celebrate the progress made since the occasion was first marked in 1911. But today also represents an opportunity for females around the world, including the 90 million women and girls here in Pakistan, to call for greater equality. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Make it Happen”. An important step in bringing about equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women is to secure the support and buy-in from men. Men and women need to work together to make change happen. This isn’t just the right thing to do. It makes economic sense.

Evidence suggests that countries where women are equal to men have stronger growth and are more productive and prosperous. This means girls and women must have equal access to education and economic opportunities. Only when men and women participate equally can Pakistan’s economy thrive.

Research from the World Bank suggests that almost half of women’s productive potential globally is under utilised, compared to just a fifth of men’s. Inclusive economic growth therefore, is a key ingredient, not only to unlock the potential of women and girls but nations as a whole. This means creating an environment that can enable women to access and seize opportunities to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Women invest nearly all the money they earn back into their family to educate and feed their children. That is why women and girls are at the heart of the UK Government’s development work.

Last week, the British High Commission supported the UN Women’s Pakistan launch of their global Campaign for Gender Equality. The ‘He for She’ campaign is a solidarity movement that invites men to be advocates for gender equality. Men around the world are generally considered ‘members of the dominant group,’ because they have access to social and institutional power which women usually lack. Gender equality cannot be achieved if only one gender is involved. It is essential that men are part of the debate. Last Thursday, the Chevening Alumni Association of Pakistan, supported by members of Pakistan’s Women’s Parliamentary Caucus and the British High Commission, also debated the importance of men and boys supporting women and girls as agents of change in their inaugural lecture.

The UK and Pakistan are joined by our extensive cultural and people to people links. We are committed to supporting Pakistan’s socio-economic development, including working for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Progress has certainly been made in recent years. The UK is pleased to be working in partnership with Pakistan to reduce poverty further, including by improving access to health and education services and boosting economic growth.

If women are healthy, educated and free from violence, they will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations do as well. The British High Commission continues to support Pakistan in its efforts to deliver even more progress in this important area.

On behalf of everybody at the British High Commission, we wish everybody, men and women alike, a Happy International Women’s Day!