Inequality at home between men and women leads to poorer health for the children and greater poverty for the family, says a new study.
Children of women-headed households eat better food, Unicef says
The UN children's agency, Unicef, found that where women are excluded from family decisions, children are more likely to be under-nourished.
There would be 13m fewer malnourished children in South Asia if women had an equal say in the family, Unicef said.
Unicef surveyed family decision-making in 30 countries around the world.
Their chief finding is that equality between men and women is essential to lowering poverty and improving health, especially of children, in developing countries.
The conclusions are contained in the agency's State of the World's Children 2007 report.
Lack of opportunities
"There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
"Discrimination against women of all ages deprives the world's children - all of them, not just the half who are girls - of the chance to reach their potential."
The report points to a greater lack of opportunities for girls and women in education and employment that contributes to disempowerment and poverty.
Where men control the household, less money is spent on health care and food for the family, resulting in poorer health for the children.
For example, in Ivory Coast and Ghana, it was discovered that when women's income increased for whatever reason, they spent the extra on more food for the family, whereas an increase in men's income made no significant difference, Unicef said.
In many households across the developing world, Unicef found that women are excluded from health-related decisions.
Children in these families are more likely to be undernourished as the family spends less on food, Unicef said.
Gender equality in family decision-making in South Asia would lead to 13.4m fewer malnourished children, a 13% reduction, the report said.
Women also work longer hours than men across the developing world, spending much of their time, even when in paid employment, on household chores, the report said.
In many families where women work, daughters are taken out of school to perform domestic chores and take care of other children.
Increasing employment and income-earning opportunities for women would increase women's household power, Unicef said.
For example, the agency found that whoever has the greater share of household income and assets decides whether those resources will be used to meet family needs.
The status of women in the family is paralleled in the political world, Unicef said.
Women's involvement in government tends to result in policies that are focused on children and families.
But, the report said, women are under-represented in legislatures around the world due to lower levels of education, social attitudes and their greater work burden.