VOA Africa Division’s Linord Moudou spoke to Melinda Gates about women’s empowerment, work in Africa, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and how men can benefit from women’s empowerment. The interview also touched on the pay gap between men and women and the anti-vaccination movement.
Q: Melinda Gates, thank you so much for joining us on the Voice of America.
Melinda Gates: Thanks for having me.
Q: You just released a book, The Moment of Lift. First of all, you are well known as a accomplished businesswoman and a philanthropist. Why was it important for you to become an author and write this book?
Gates: Well, I have met so many women and families over 20 years of foundation travels to many, many, many countries, and the stories these women have shared with me about their lives have called me to action. And I wanted to write a book that would call others to action, because I believe that equality can’t wait. When we make women equal in society, it lifts up their family and society, and we need to make sure that we really get to equality for women all over the world.
Q: So when we talk about equality for women, how would you describe it? What are some of the basic steps?
Gates: To me, equality for women shows up when they have their full voice and their full decision-making authority in their home, in their community and in their workplace. If we can make sure women have that, you will have true equality in society for all women.
WATCH: Melinda Gates Speaks About Women’s Empowerment
Q: So, why did you think of this title, The Moment of Lift? What is the moment?
Gates: Well, when I was a little girl my dad was an Apollo engineer, and he worked on that first mission that went up to space, and my sister and I would get to be in our jammies late at night, watching that that rocket take off. And I love that moment when the engines were ignited, and the Earth was shaking and rumbling, and that rocket would lift off against the forces of gravity that pushed it down, and head off to the moon. And I thought about women. I have thought about all the barriers that hold us down in various societies, and if we could remove those barriers, we would get this moment of lift for women and men all over the world.
Q: And let’s talk about some of those barriers. You’ve traveled around the world, working and empowering women and girls. What are some of the commonalities you were able to see, to witness?
Gates: Well, I see so many women that if we allow them, as a world, to have access to contraceptives, what we know from society after society around the world is once a woman has access to contraceptives, she can time and space the births of her children. She can continue her education, she can work in the workforce if she chooses, her kids are healthier, she’s healthier, the family’s wealthier and better educated. So that barrier — every society has to make the transition through contraceptives first. If women have access to contraceptives, and their kids and they have good health, the next barrier you have to remove is education. Because when women are educated, it changes absolutely everything in their family, and even the decisions they make and what they go do in the world.
Q: So you went to an all-girls Catholic high school. So did I, actually. And one of the things I can remember is contraceptives are not a part of discussion — not very often, at least. So what prompted you to really turn your interest into enabling women to have access to contraceptives, as well as family planning? Why is it such an important part of your work?
Gates: Yes, so I was meeting so many women around the world, and I would be there to talk about vaccinations for their children, which they were thrilled to talk about. They said, “You know, I walk 10 kilometers in the heat to get them. I know the difference.” But when I turn the questions and let them ask questions of me, they would say, “But what about my health? What about that contraceptive that, at this little clinic, I can get vaccines and I used to be able to get contraceptives and now I can’t?” And it was through these rallying calls for women saying, “Why isn’t the world allowing us to have these anymore?” that I came to learn and realize the difference they make in women’s lives. And 200 million women are asking us as a world for contraceptives. It’s a very inexpensive tool. We use it in the United States. More than 90% of women use it in the United States and in Europe, and yet if we don’t allow women to have that tool, [if] we don’t provide it, they can’t lift themselves out of poverty. And so I started to realize that was a really important piece of the work.
Q: And you say in the book, as you work to empower women, others have empowered you. How so?
Gates: I think by other women sharing the stories of their lives. I would often be coming back from various countries in Africa — Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Senegal — and as I was flying home I kept thinking of all these barriers I would see holding women down in Africa. And I would think, “If women could only have this barrier removed or that.” But it was then their stories that helped me turn the question back on the U.S. and say, “How far are we really in the United States?” OK, we’ve made some distance, but less than 25% of people in Congress are women. Less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. If a woman wants to start a business in the United States, less than 2% of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses. So they helped me see what needs to get done around the world, not just in their own countries and where we can help and intervene, but really in our own country, too, in the United States.
Q: So you talked about stories of women in the book. You also bring some of your stories in the book, and you are known to be a private woman. Why was it so important for you to share your own stories? You talk about abuse and other stories — why did you do that?
Gates: Yes. So in this book, even though I’m incredibly private, I decided to be pretty vulnerable, quite vulnerable. That was not an easy decision, but I do. I share stories of my own personal journey because they are the stories, also, of millions of other women. So this story that I do tell of abuse that I experienced — it silenced me. I lost my self-confidence. And we know millions of women around the world are in relationships where they’re being abused. Women tell me about it when I go in villages. I hear about sexual harassment in the workplace in many places in the United States. It’s a spectrum, but any type of harassment holds a woman back. It pushes her back into her corner and she doesn’t get her voice or she doesn’t feel confident to take a decision. So I choose to share a story like that, and my own climb to equality, to let everyone know it is possible.
Q: I would like to read something from the book. You write, “The first time I was asked if I was a feminist, I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t think of myself as a feminist. Twenty-two years later, I am an ardent feminist.” Feminism is a word that is celebrated by some and makes others cringe, even some women. So, what is feminism to you? How are you a feminist?
Gates: Feminism is when a woman has her full voice, and her full decision-making authority wherever she is in her life, in her home, in her community and in her workplace. If she has her voice and can take any decision, then she is fully empowered. And if you believe that, then you are feminist, in my opinion.
Q: Great. Now, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has impacted the world. And particularly, you have worked on the continent of Africa. More than $15 billion has been invested in projects related to Africa. Would you tell us about the impact that you were able to see that has really transformed people’s lives?
Gates: Yes, so the foundation has been in existence now for over 20 years. I think the most important thing for everybody to know is we work in partnership. There is nothing the foundation has ever done without being in full partnership with others, and particularly with governments and citizens on the ground in various countries. And philanthropy is just — all it can be is this catalytic wedge. We can try things; we can experiment where you wouldn’t want a government to do that with taxpayer money. But if we can prove things out and measure it, then we can ask government to scale it up. And so I think one of the foundation’s biggest successes has been in vaccinations. Why is childhood death down, cut in half since 1990? Two enormous reasons: vaccinations and malarial bed nets. And we’re part of two large-scale partnerships to try — that we have done, worked on — to scale up vaccines, in many countries in Africa and all over the world, and to make sure that malaria bed nets through the Global Fund are distributed.
Q: So speaking of vaccinations, vaccines have helped the world get rid certain diseases, like smallpox. Today we see a resurgence of measles. And one of the reasons is because some parents in the United States refused to vaccinate their children. How does it make you feel?
Gates: When I hear that there are cases of measles in the United States, I’m incredibly frustrated. And I’m saddened to think that a global health issue that we have solved in the United States has come back because parents have believed misinformation. And, you know, no child should have measles in this country. No person who is in an immune-compromised situation in the United States should be affected by someone else because a parent has chosen not to get the measles vaccine. These are lifesaving tools. Women tell me all over Africa they walk 10 miles in the heat to get vaccines because it saves their children’s lives. So I’m saddened to see this in the United States and I hope it makes people realize how lucky we are to have vaccines in our country.
Q: Now, working on the African countries, on the African continent, as well as other countries in the world, there are some changes that cannot occur without abandoning certain cultural practices and beliefs. So how do you get people to embrace new ideas in such circumstances?
Gates: Well, everywhere we work, for instance, on the continent of Africa, you know, each country is different and then there are many, many cultures inside of each country. So what you can do, the way to work, is to go — or what we’ve chosen to do — is to work with partners who’ve been on the ground often 30 or 40 years, living with villagers, and people from the community are part of those partners. And what you do is you come in and see where the community’s at, what they’re trying to learn, what their requests and needs are, and then you start to bring in some education — educating around the things they care about and some education about tools we have here in the United States, like contraceptives. And when you’re in a trusting relationship where the villagers start to believe and understand some of the education you’ve brought in, they will start to ask for those tools. And so we do all of our work in that cultural context, [that] hopefully appropriate way.
Q: So to go back to the family planning — why is it so important? What is the message behind family planning?
Gates: Family planning is the greatest anti-poverty tool we have in the world. When a woman can time and space the births of her children, her family is healthier — her entire family — the kids are better educated, and the family is wealthier. And I met a woman named Marianne in Korogocho — in a slum, actually, in Kenya — and she summed up this family planning conversation that we’d had. There’s about 30 women there, and at the end, after two hours, she finally said — she had this beautiful baby girl in her arms, a newborn — and she said, “I want to give every good thing to this child — before I have another one.” And I thought, “Yeah. That sums up how parents feel about their children.” We want to time and space when we have children, so we can bring every good thing to our child, and then have another one.
Q: So what do you say to men in countries where women are treated unequally?
Gates: We go in and work with partners, and we say to men, “If you want your children to be healthy, you need to think about certain things that your wife is doing — the amount of unpaid labor she does, the amount she chops wood, carries water, cooks the meals — and if you’re willing to think about that and to take some of that burden away from her, she will actually be better off and your kids will be better off.” And the only way to do that is to, again, work with partners who are from the community and on the ground, and then have the village look at the tasks that women and men do, have an open conversation over time about that, and then commit to change. And when you do that — I’ve actually seen this in Malawi — the men become champions. They say, “My gosh, my whole house has changed because I’m carrying water now and my wife isn’t, or I’m chopping the firewood, and she has more time for these other things.” And so that’s a conversation we need to have all over the world. Even in the United States, women do 90 minutes more of what we call this “unpaid labor” in our homes [per day] than men do. Some of it is loving, caring work we want to do, caring for our loved ones, but some of it is just chores, right? And so we need to look at that 90 minutes, even in the U.S. — or six hours more that a woman does every day in India versus her husband — and say, “How do we redistribute the workload so women can do other things in the productive work they want to do in their lives?”
Q: Do you see a world where unpaid labor will become maybe something more valued for women who are doing it?
Gates: Absolutely. It needs to. I mean, when we think of what paid labor is and unpaid labor, we didn’t for a long time even measure this unpaid labor, and that’s because — let’s go back in time: Economists were predominantly men. It’s a very male-dominated field. So they chose to measure what they knew, which was productive labor. But I would tell you, and what I see from the research, is that our economies are built on the backs of this unpaid labor that women do all over the world. That is also productive. We want somebody taking care of the kids. We want things to happen in our homes. But men and women need to look at that, and I am so encouraged by this next generation that I see who’s coming up, where many young men, particularly in the United States and in Europe, have been raised under moms who work. So the way they look at the work in the home is, they know when they come into the partnership or the marriage, they’re going to do half the work.
Q: So speaking of the next generation and men, while empowering women and girls, what is the message to boys and young men? Will men now feel marginalized when they see all this movement around empowering girls?
Gates: What I would say to everyone in the world is that equality can’t wait. Our societies are better off when we have equality. Men will actually tell you — I’ve met men in Kenya and Tanzania and Malawi who’ve done this looking at the redistribution of labor in their homes; I meet men in the United States who say, “Hey, I’m actually helping do things I didn’t do before” — and what they start to see is they’re happier, their families are happier, their wife is happier. And what I’ve learned from men around the world, they’ll say — particularly in countries that have paid family medical leave for a long time, like Sweden — they say, “I want to be there at the birth of my child and to take care of my child. I want to participate in that, and my society values it, and so we have paid family medical leave so I can take care of the kids or take care of my aging parents.” And to me that’s enlightened men, and that makes a better society.
Q: And now before we wrap two more questions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with partners and other organizations, has invested lots of resources and money in various programs to help developing countries, yet we still see a lot of suffering, whether it’s in health or other areas. Why does it seem like there is a gap between the amount of assistance out there and the number of people who die from preventable diseases?
Gates: I think — I know there’s still people dying of preventable diseases, and every one of those lives, what I want people to know is it’s a tragedy. And when there is generosity from the developed world, in conjunction with African nations putting in some of their own taxpayer monies, you start to move societies forward. And so in the United States, less than 1% of our foreign aid budget goes to countries all over the world. And what you do is you create peace and stability in those places and families lift themselves up. And so what I want people to know is we need to continue to make those investments, because many of these deaths or these diseases, those are needless health emergencies in a family, and they affect families.
Q: And finally, how does empowering women change the world? What is the takeaway from the book?
Gates: If you empower women, they empower everybody else around them. And so if we want healthy societies, we lift up all women. And the goal is not just equality. The goal is a better human race with more connection, and that’s the message of the book.
Q: Melinda Gates, thank you so much for your time.
Gates: Thank you.