June 24, 2013

Philanthropy Gets Personal: Melinda Gates Uses Her Voice to Empower Women

Melinda Gates is using her powerful voice to speak out for the more than 200 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant but who lack access to contraceptives. 

By: The Bridgespan Group

Melinda Gates"I made a conscious decision...to really step out and use my voice, and it wasn’t an easy decision," says Melinda Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "I enjoy being a private citizen and having my privacy, but ultimately, when I started to look at the role of philanthropy and what it can do to effect change, I realized it wasn’t enough to just visit women in the developing world or to give them a tool like [a] vaccine; I had to use my voice on their behalf." Today, Gates is using her powerful voice to speak out for the more than 200 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant but who lack access to contraceptives

Melinda Gates' personal priority to empower women, save lives

The Gates Foundation, which focuses on three grantmaking areas—global development, global health, and programs focused on the United States, especially education—is the largest private foundation in the world and is synonymous with making big bets and getting big results, such as its work toward eradicating polio by 2018. Now, as a key component of its work in global development, the foundation is focused on empowering women through ensuring "that women and girls in developing countries have access to quality family planning information, services, and supplies."

See a complete archive of Melinda Gates' videos.

"Empowered women and girls will save lives, make families more prosperous and help the poorest countries in the world build stronger economies," Gates wrote before attending the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur. "One key to empowerment—and an issue that's a personal priority for me—is letting women decide when to have children." Her personal focus on family planning, along with maternal and child health, has emerged as an outgrowth of the foundation’s first forays into global health, when the Gates team focused its work on vaccines, an important method of saving children from dying needlessly. With progress on that front, Gates has turned her attention to family planning. "Family planning is important," she says, "because, first of all, it saves mothers' lives."

More From the Blog

According to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), more than 40 percent of girls are married before age 18 in countries such as Niger, Chad, Mozambique, Malawi, India, and Uganda—to name just a few. In the case of Niger and Chad that number is higher than 70 percent. And when these women do not have access to contraceptives? "We know that there are many, many young girls who are having their second baby by age 18," says Gates. "Women don’t survive very well when they’re having children that young." In fact, pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15 to 19, according to the ICRW. Moreover, an estimated 80 million women in developing countries had an unintended pregnancy in 2012, and at least one in four resorted to an unsafe abortion, according to research published by the Gates Foundation. Giving a woman the ability to limit the number of children she has is one of the most important tools in keeping a woman healthy, able to work, able to stay in school longer, and able to better feed and support the children she does have. "If she can plan and space her children, she has a chance of feeding them and ultimately of educating them," says Gates.

Seing the life-altering power of modern contraceptives firsthand

Lack of access to contraceptives in developing countries is a multifaceted problem. Gates points out that a woman may have to spend the whole day walking to get a contraceptive, only to get to her destination and find supplies have emptied. And since many women must make this journey in secret—that is, without their husbands' permission—the chances that these women will be able to make another trip soon is unlikely. "Because women have so little power in society, they have to do it covertly," Gates shares.

In discussing her three-day trip to Bangladesh, Gates writes in The New York Times that women in villages with access to modern contraceptives have an average of 1.5 fewer children as compared with those who do not have access—and their lives are altered because of it. For example, their risk of pregnancy-related death and disability is lower. Furthermore, "they weighed more, were better educated, earned significantly more money, and lived in nicer houses," she writes. "Not to mention their children, who also weighed more and went to school longer." During her visit, Gates engaged the women in conversation. "Every single woman I talked to mentioned that her husband had a job and a good percentage of those women had jobs too...."

Speaking out for mothers across the globe

Philanthropists are well positioned to travel widely and experience the universality of the human condition and to, in turn, help others see this connection. Such is the case in Gates' fight to protect women. She relates that last year, a woman living in the slums outside of Nairobi told her, "I want all good things for my child before I have the next one." That conversation is not an isolated instance. In her travels, Gates has seen up close how mothers all over the world want the same things for their children. They want opportunities for their children—the opportunity to grow up, to be healthy, and to become educated. "It’s universal," says Gates.

Gates and many others believe that access to family planning will be a powerful pathway to achieving those universal goals. Yet, some people do not see it this way. That is why Gates has also done much work to bypass the religious and political polarization on the topic of family planning, as with her TED Talk to put birth control back on the agenda (see text version), and focus the spotlight on what this issue is really about for her—helping to give the disenfranchised an opportunity for a better life. 

Progress for women

Gates and the foundation for which she is Co-Chair have made great strides in promoting access to family planning. Last July's London Family Planning Summit, for example, brought together the UK Government and the Gates Foundation, in partnership with many others from across the globe "to support the right of women and girls to decide, freely and for themselves, whether, when and how many children they have." The Summit called for unprecedented global political commitments and resources that will enable 120 million more women and girls to use contraceptives by 2020. The Gates Foundation committed $560 million toward the goal of the targeted $4.3 billion. Reaching it, according to Family Planning 2020, "could result in over 200,000 fewer women and girls dying in pregnancy and childbirth and nearly 3 million fewer infants dying in their first year of life."

Melinda Gates' Key Messages for Philanthropists

Creative Commons License logo
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.