TACOMA, Washington — Melinda Gates, co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—the Gates’ private foundation centered around enhancing global healthcare, reducing extreme poverty and improving American education, is a determined global advocate and proponent of equal opportunity. Her first book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, published in 2019, leads a discussion of gender equality and the potential for unbounded empowerment, pulling from personal experiences in her life and with the foundation. Equal rights for women is a comprehensive issue but a few key ideas can be identified in Melinda Gates’ advocacy.
“Gender equity lifts everyone.”
Systemic inequalities exist between the genders everywhere. The struggle for the impoverished to lift themselves out of poverty is often greater for women because of legal and societal limits to their autonomy. When governments and communities lift restrictions on women, doors open for everyone—not only for women.
Financial independence is essential for having control of one’s education, health, marital and reproductive choices and employment. The inequalities between men and women, particularly in terms of career opportunities, affect economies on all developmental levels. One such inequality is that 90 economies still impose at least one restriction on the jobs available to women. Progress has been made in 40 economies across the world in terms of equal opportunity for women.
The average score of these 40 economies on the Women, Business, and the Law index—a measure of how laws affect the economic participation of women working and living in their economic center—increased from 69.8% to 76.4% between 2017 and 2020. These improvements are not solely in the best interest of women; they allow for growth throughout entire economies. There is a positive correlation between the WBL index and income per capita, demonstrating that, as Melinda Gates states in her novel, “When you invest in women, you invest in the people who invest in everybody else.” As a result of empowering women, entire communities will profit.
“Contraceptives are the greatest life-saving, poverty-ending, women-empowering innovation ever created.”
In her novel, Melinda Gates shared a story from a trip to India with the Gates Foundation, where she met a local mother of two who had given birth to her second son only weeks prior. In response to Gates asking the mother if she wanted more children, she said she did not; she wasn’t even sure of how she would feed her second child. The mother went on to plead to Gates to take her two children home with her. The moment sparked Gates’ passion for family planning and preventing mothers from feeling incapable of caring for their children. Gates now identifies access to contraceptives as the first priority for women.
Contraceptives give couples and individuals the power to choose when or if they want children, and how many. This power not only reduces maternal and newborn mortality rates but also enables the lives saved to live healthily and comfortably. A significant reason for the latter is that families of fewer children are more likely to better provide for their children and experience less economic burden.
Family planning is essential to breaking the cycle of poverty as no country in the last 50 years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives. Yet, as of 2019, 218 million women of reproductive age in low and middle-income countries have an unmet need for modern contraceptives. Current obstacles to advancing family planning include funding, product suitability, distribution and cultural or communicative differences.
“Connect deeply with others.”
Empathy is a cornerstone of fighting extreme poverty. Melinda Gates writes in her book about the barriers behind poverty. Barriers are built-in dispute and Gates explains that “when people can’t agree, it’s often because there is no empathy, no sense of shared experience.” The world tends to create outsiders by marginalizing groups that embody fears of humanity and women are particularly vulnerable to this marginalization. When efforts are made to understand the hurt of others, connections are cultivated that illuminate needs and champion change.
According to Gates, diversity is essential for equality. Diversity in leaders, representatives and advocates furthers inclusion, both domestically and globally, because it builds or repairs connections to neglected groups.
In her novel, Melinda Gates wrote about the importance of sharing stories, rooted in her belief that it has the power to impact global change. Gates tells a story of a village she visited in Niger where women gather to talk whenever they have the opportunity and this sharing of experiences allowed for knowledge of contraceptives and family planning to be spread where such information was otherwise difficult to access. Listening to others—regardless of the degree of differences that exist—when fighting extreme poverty is essential. Working to improve women’s rights allows one to adapt methods to the capabilities of the community and uphold customs, fostering respect between providers and recipients of aid.
There are limits to the insight that data can provide; the stories that Melinda shares could not be communicated by percentages or indexes. Behind every statistic that paints the picture of extreme poverty and inequality experienced by women are mothers and daughters who did not choose life on the margins. As Melinda Gates’ activism demonstrates, remembering the individuals embodied by global data encourages progress that is most needed and most supported, locally and globally.
– Payton Unger