But in much of the developing world the story is different, as a recent report funded by Britain's Department for International Development makes clear. In these countries, women often lack essential legal and social rights, such as the right to own land or access credit on the same terms as men.
The key insight of the report is this: Empowering women is absolutely crucial in the fight against poverty.
The idea that it's smart policy to empower women is certainly not new. International organizations, researchers and nongovernmental organizations have spent years drafting reports and implementing programs designed to improve conditions for women. The question is, are the governments of developing countries listening?
Consider the findings of the World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Gender Gap Report: "Low gender gaps are directly correlated with high economic competitiveness." Klaus Schwab, the forum's founder and executive chairman, stressed this issue in an article in the Seattle Times: "Women and girls must be treated equally if a country is to grow and prosper."
When women are empowered to go to school, enter the workforce, be entrepreneurs, own property and get reliable access to credit, they not only invest in their businesses, they invest in their children's health, nutrition and education. In other words, they invest in the future.
The dream of eradicating poverty is slowly becoming a reality for some women in Africa. One example is 33-year-old Emelienne Nyirumana. In the past, Emelienne struggled to support her five children, earning less than $1 a day transporting water in Rwanda.
Her life changed in 2007 when she joined a women's sewing cooperative called Cocoki. Cocoki partners with NGO Indego Africa to market and sell products in the U.S. At Cocoki, Emelienne became a master seamstress and developed a passion for business. In 2010 she applied for, and was admitted to, the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative. Thanks to hard work and new opportunities, Emelienne has quadrupled her income. Today she and her fellow co-op members can afford to do more for their children and for themselves.
Although Emelienne's story is inspirational, earlier this year the World Bank produced a report that contains much less inspiring findings. "Only 20 out of 128 economies surveyed have equal legal rights for men and women in several important areas for entrepreneurs and workers." Of the 20 economies with equal legal rights, only one is located in sub-Saharan Africa: Botswana.
In a number of African countries -- including Rwanda, Cameroon and Togo -- men have the legal right to forbid their wives to work. This means that in virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa, and in much of the developing world, half the population has a more difficult and costly time starting and operating a business or a farm than the other half.
Creating change is difficult, especially in the face of a hostile legal and regulatory environment or, perhaps more challenging, when confronted with tradition or other cultural obstacles that thwart women.
But there is hope. As Emelienne's story shows, placing women's empowerment front and center in the human development debate has the potential to pay large dividends, not only for women around the world but for their children. And that will contribute to a brighter future for us all.
Karol Boudreaux is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, lead researcher for Enterprise Africa and board member of Indego Africa. Ben VanMetre is a master's fellow at the Mercatus Center and George Mason University.