A high-level conference on development in Africa has heard that empowering women could be the key to the continent's prosperity. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from Addis Ababa, where the Sixth African Development Forum is in progress.

Five hundred delegates from across Africa are attending the forum, which is focusing on gender equality, women's empowerment and ending violence against women. The gathering is being held at the headquarters of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa.

Addressing the opening session were such notables as African Development Bank chief Donald Kaberuka, African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping, United Nations Economic Commission Secretary-General Abdoulie Janneh, Ethiopia's President Girma Woldegiorgis and Denmark's Development Minister Ulla Tornaes.

In his speech, A.U. Chairman Jean Ping lamented the poor record of many African governments in achieving equality in the nearly 30 years since adoption of a landmark convention on women's rights.

"Over the three decades since convention on elimination of all forms of discrimination against women in 1979, a number of member states are still lagging in overcoming the challenges of gender-based discrimination and violence. This explains why we are here today: to fashion out more practical ways of overcoming these challenges."

Delegates at the opening session heard many reasons why empowering women is a wise idea. On a continent where a significant percentage of the population is engaged in food production, they heard evidence that agricultural productivity increases dramatically when women have equal access to the means of production. In addition, an educated female work force can make a significant contribution to economic growth.

But Danish Development Minister Ulla Tornaes raised what is possibly the most compelling reason: self-interest. She noted that, in general, societies where men and women are most equal are the most prosperous. Put another way, empowering women is also in men's economic self-interest. "We know that economic growth and gender equality are closely related. More equality goes hand in hand with higher economic growth. Africa's women are hitherto largely untapped source of economic potential. Properly harnessed, this resource can transform Africa and contribute to economic growth," he said.

The three-day gathering will examine some of the toughest challenges facing African policy makers, among them finding ways to ensure women in impoverished countries have access to education, credit, decent jobs and property rights.

Friday's closing session will feature one of Africa's most prominent female personalities and role models, former Tanzanian foreign minister and now U.N. deputy secretary-general Asha Rose Migiro.