Empowered women and girls transform societies: an interview with Melinda Gates

Article Date

26 May 2016

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

On May 17, ICRW conferred the 2016 Champion for Change Leadership Award on Melinda French Gates for her unwavering commitment to ensuring that every person has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life. The Award also recognizes her leadership in galvanizing global momentum toward the empowerment of women and girls around the world. 

In this interview after the award ceremony at Women Deliver 2016 in Copenhagen, Gates talks about the importance of women as catalysts of global change and why data is essential to smart investments in global development. 

The Gates Foundation has been focused on global health and sustainable development since its creation, investing in innovations to address global challenges such as tuberculosis and safe drinking water. How did you come to see women as catalysts to addressing these challenges and others? Did you experience an epiphany in your work with women and communities or was it more the result of careful and systematic study of the issues?

Given our backgrounds in computer science, it was kind of inevitable that Bill and I started out on this journey with a bias toward technological solutions. Our optimism about technology hasn’t changed. But over the years we’ve gradually gotten a greater appreciation for the social and cultural factors that influence how individuals, communities and even countries develop. Of course, one of the most important, and one of the most complex, of these is gender. Ultimately, even the most ingenious tech solutions must be accompanied by an approach that helps women overcome obstacles in their own households and communities.

The work our partners have done in this area has influenced me greatly. And our foundation is fortunate to have benefited from experts as we’ve worked to deepen our understanding about the role gender plays in our work. It’s a lesson we’ve sometimes learned the hard way. More than once, we found ourselves missing targets in priority areas like agriculture, sanitation and financial services because we didn’t give sufficiently full and thoughtful consideration to the role of gender.

At the same time, I have traveled all over the world meeting women and girls to listen to their stories and to learn more about their daily lives and the barriers that hold them back. I love connecting with other women this way, in their homes or communities, drinking tea and chatting — it’s actually one of my favorite parts of the job. And getting to know women like Neelam, who I spoke about in my speech at Women Deliver, has helped me see firsthand how empowered women and girls transform societies.

The world has increasingly focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment — as we’ve seen with the Sustainable Development Goals — and for good reason. No society can achieve its potential with half of its population disenfranchised, disadvantaged and disempowered. My goal is to better understand what it means to me and our foundation to put women and girls at the center of global health and development as a way to help our partners succeed and for us to achieve our vision of a world where everyone has the chance to lead a healthy, productive life.

As a philanthropist, how do you balance investment in innovation, which is so important and increasingly hard to fund, with investment in proven interventions?

I’d say that one of the features which makes our foundation unique is that we can take risks that others can’t or won’t. This most often tends to manifest itself as investments in exciting new innovations and revolutionary scientific discoveries. In fact, I believe that over the next 15 years we will see major breakthroughs for most people in poor countries on everything from food to finance — and that they will be driven by innovation in technology.

That said, we also spend a lot of time as a foundation championing existing solutions and interventions that we know are effective and having impact — and trying to scale them in the countries where we work. The bottom line is that we like to support whatever it is that makes the most difference to the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people on earth, so there’s no set formula that determines whether we invest in new solutions or current interventions. Instead, we rely heavily on data and evidence to identify the areas of greatest need and then target our investments accordingly.

If you look at what we’re doing around nutrition for example, you’ll see how we use a mix of solutions — developing and identifying new tools and supporting proven interventions such as breastfeeding and fortified food. Investing in both the new and the existing is the fastest way to ensure that more women and children survive and thrive.   

How have research and data informed investments that the Gates Foundation has made in women’s health and empowerment? Are there particular examples that you could share where emerging research shaped your own thinking and the Foundation’s strategy?

Global health and development is my second career and I like to think of myself as on a constant learning journey. Our foundation also considers itself a learning institution. So for Bill and me, data and evidence are absolutely fundamental in helping us work out what it will take to achieve our ultimate goal of reducing inequity. I’d say that our giving is a continuous process of making big bets, taking stock of progress and adjusting strategies to try to win those bets.

An example of how that happens is family planning. Until recently, many developing countries tended to conduct national health surveys every five years or so. That means that in 2016, agencies trying to give women access to a range of contraceptive choices, had to make assumptions based on data from 2011. But a new smartphone-based data system called Performance Monitoring and Accountability 2020 — or PMA2020 — has started giving us a better version of this information every six to 12 months. As well as collecting more data more frequently, PMA2020 also cuts in half the time it takes to analyze the data, so insights reach decision-makers faster. The Uganda Health Ministry, for example, found from its surveys that younger people weren’t using family planning services. As a result, the government made reaching them a top priority in its national family planning strategy.

Our Family Planning team has also begun acting on what it’s learning from the data and last year our foundation announced an additional $120 million to help accelerate progress towards our FP2020 goal of reaching 120 million more women with the advice and contraceptives they want by 2020. Based on what we’ve learned, some of this extra money will fund programs that expand access to family planning for the urban poor. And with the largest generation in history about to enter their reproductive years, an essential part of this work will be to reach young people. What’s more, with PMA2020, instead of waiting five years to find out whether and how that is working, we will know within a year. 

Data underpins everything we do. If you don’t have data, you don’t know where to make good investments. This is why I’m so excited about the potential of the commitment to close the gender data gap that our foundation is supporting.

What do you believe are the hallmarks of a gender-equitable world? In today’s complex, unsettled world, what are the principal pathways forward? What other challenges must we tackle along the way, and how will we know when we have truly arrived?

To me, I think of gender equality in terms of empowerment — meaning, does a woman have her voice and her agency. Can she say what she thinks needs to be said in any setting? Does she have the agency to make decisions on behalf of herself and her family? Obviously, there’s a long way to go before we truly reach that point but I’m optimistic that we can get there. But for the first time, women and girls are not just on the agenda, they are the agenda. They are at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals — including, of course, a specific commitment to gender equality and a number of promises aimed at empowering women and girls. And that means that the momentum is with us.

But goals without action are just wishes, really, so we have to turn ambition into reality. Closing the gender data gap is a big part of that but it’s also important that the global community continue to invest in three specific areas that drive change, so that we can keep making progress on empowering women and girls: health, economic opportunity and decision-making power.

When health improves, life improves by every measure — but one of the greatest challenges a woman in the developing world faces is access to primary healthcare where she can get all of her family’s needs taken care of in one place. Things such as routine vaccinations for her kids, advice on good nutrition, family planning and breastfeeding and facilities that make giving birth as safe as possible.

Equally, enabling women in the poorest parts of the world to earn an income and manage their own finances — for instance, by giving them access to mobile money — can help them build financial security and increase their influence over the household budget. And we know that when women are more likely to invest their income into the health and welfare of their families.

Finally, we still need to better understand and address the barriers and social norms that limit women and girls’ decision making power. This includes women being able to decide if, when and who to marry; if and when to have children — and how many; and how to save or spend their money. One of the ways our foundation is trying to do this is by working with partners to support women’s self-help groups. Not only do these have tangible benefits, such as helping women farmers increase their crop yields; they also enable women to see themselves and each other as agents of change.

When women and girls have their voice and their agency — when they are truly empowered with good health, economic opportunities and a say over the things that affect their lives and their families, that’s when we know we’ve truly arrived!