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Women planting onions and transporting water in rural Rajasthan, India.Candace Feit

A recent survey of G20 countries found that the most developed economies also have the greatest gender equity. Canada tops the list, followed by Germany and the United Kingdom.

The study reveals, yet again, the strong correlation between sustainable growth and development, on the one hand, and gender

equity on the other. A country cannot progress until it includes women in the labour market in a meaningful way, removes barriers to their advancement and offers them the same opportunities for education and health care as men.

Nowhere is this more true than in India, a vital democracy with an emerging economy which came dead last in the survey, conducted by Thomson Reuters Foundation in advance of the G20 summit this week in Mexico. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently noted that India's most underutilized resource is women, who compose only one-third of the labour force.

A panel of 379 experts ranked the 20 nations on several factors, including women's and girls' access to state resources, participation in politics, quality of health, freedom from violence and freedom from slavery and sex trafficking.

Clearly, progressive laws and treaties on women's rights – such as India's Domestic Violence Act – are not sufficient to guarantee change. India's pervasive patriarchal culture means that some women and girls are still sold as chattels, married off when they are as young as 10, burned alive in dowry disputes and abused as slave labour, the survey concludes.

Also lagging in the survey are Mexico, China, South Africa and Indonesia. Saudi Arabia was second-to-last. Despite being an oil-rich country with good access to education and health, the participation of women in political and economic life is severely curtailed.

The best way to transform such a society is to convince government and the private sector of the business case for the advancement of women. Among other persuasive arguments is that educated and empowered women are better positioned to ensure that their own children – regardless of gender – are raised in a way that prepares them to succeed, helping to ensure the next generation is positioned to enhance productivity and competitiveness.

The proven business case for gender equality should motivate all G20 countries to invest in policies that address unequal pay, domestic violence and sexual trafficking. Sustainable development isn't possible when half a nation's work force cannot fulfill its potential.