One of the most significant aspects of revolutions in the Middle East and Africa is that women are participating, and the movements must respect women's fundamental rights in order to succeed, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says.
Ban's speech at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia focused on empowering women and the implications of regime changes in places such as Tunisia, Egypt and Ivory Coast.
Seven women were killed in Ivory Coast last month during a peaceful demonstration to oust strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the presidential election in November but has refused to relinquish power.
Earlier, a UN helicopter fired on Gbagbo's forces in an effort to oust him.
"Our peacekeepers, United Nations blue helmets, are risking their lives at this time - even at this moment - to protect civilians throughout the dramatic chapter that is playing out as we speak now," Ban said.
"Securing a democratic outcome has been costly but is essential."
Ban addressed an audience of hundreds of students and worldwide academic leaders as part of the fifth Global Colloquium of University Presidents.
The gathering is convened annually on behalf of the secretary-general for educational institutions to address international public policy issues.
This year's topic is empowering women, which Ban said is a challenge in developing countries as well as developed nations.
Women are underrepresented worldwide as heads of state, in parliaments and in the highest levels of business, he said.
Universities across the globe must promote female empowerment by ensuring women are fairly represented in all aspects of academic life, Ban said.
He noted only 30 per cent of tenured faculty in the US are female.
Institutions must also offer research to help developing countries build "the bridge from information to policy".
Many nations don't have reliable statistics on the economic impact of women in the workplace, their roles in health and education, or even women's share of the poverty burden, he said.
Ban also spoke of his visits to North Africa, where he said the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt "represent one of the greatest opportunities to advance democracy and human rights in a generation".
But he said that "the changes we are seeing must respect the fundamental rights and aspirations of women".
"Women told me that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with men - standing up for change, for rights and for opportunity," Ban said.
"They expect to take their share in making the revolution succeed - having their fair share of power, making decisions and making policy."
Ban said he is trying to lead by example, having increased the number of women in senior UN leadership posts by more than 40 per cent.
Last month, the UN merged four of its women's organisations into a new entity called UN Women led by Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile.
Bachelet is scheduled speak at the colloquium on Tuesday.
In introducing Ban, Penn President Amy Gutmann said that "the world will only realise its full potential - and not just economically - when women are empowered, when women can fulfill their promise, when women can manage their lives, and when women have a voice in the decisions that shape their destiny."