Last week, Melinda Gates delivered the annual Arnold C. Harberger Distinguished Lecture on Economic Development in conversation with NPR’s Renèe Montagne. Before the question and answer session, Gates met with various student journalists from across the UCLA campus for 30 minutes to answer our questions. We focused our discussion on an issue Gates has spearheaded during her time as the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: women’s and reproductive rights.
Before I delve into the discussion with Gates, let me give you some background information about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation was established in 2000 and has a $42.3 billion endowment. Its goal has become helping all people “lead healthy, productive lives” through poverty eradication, improving people’s health and increasing access to education and technology. It is also one of the largest private foundations in the world. The foundation is heavily shaped by the interests of its leadership, namely, Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and William Gates Sr.
In the past few years Melinda Gates has developed a passion for promoting reproductive rights, and has spearheaded many efforts to increase access to contraception and reproductive health education around the world. Those efforts include the Foundation’s Family Planning program, whose goal is to bring contraceptive information, services and supplies to 120 million women and girls in the world’s poorest countries by 2020. These women, and what needs to be done to help them, constituted the topics discussed.
During the discussion with Montagne and the student journalists, Gates explained that when women have the capacity to make their own money instead of relying on a male, economies are boosted significantly. In addition, compared to men, women invest more of their money (in fact, 10 times more) in their family’s wellbeing. She also mentioned that in order to successfully promote gender equality and reproductive rights, “Men and boys have to be part of the conversation.” Gates has received criticism in the past for focusing too heavily on female empowerment and neglecting men that also need assistance in becoming contributing members of a society. During our conversation, she maintained that men must be included in the fight for gender equality because there are certain social norms and power structures that must be broken down, and that requires the efforts of both men and women. She also mentioned how certain misconceptions, like how some religious texts don’t provide for family planning, must be discussed with both genders in the family.
I asked Melinda Gates how the Foundation’s family planning program operates in countries where there are legal restrictions to reproductive rights, like how abortion is heavily restricted in many Middle Eastern countries. She responded by stating that the Foundation only works with contraception, because birth control and contraception laws are not as strict as abortion laws. She also said that in countries that do have legal restrictions on abortion, they conduct policy work to help change some of these laws.
The Foundation’s policy change work is in desperate need in many MENA countries that have unbelievably restrictive laws regarding reproductive rights and gender equality. Last year, the Foundation awarded a $1 million grant to the non-profit organization Pathfinder International, which has a maternal and newborn health program in Egypt. The program distributes and promotes contraception and increases the availability of reproductive health and family planning services for Egypt’s impoverished and underserved population.
More programs like Pathfinder International’s are necessary in a region that struggles with gender equality. Ten Middle East and North African countries will only allow abortion if a woman’s life is in danger. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote or drive (however, in 2011 there was a royal decree that will allow women to vote in the 2015 Saudi elections). In Yemen, women cannot leave the house without their husbands’ permission and a woman is also not recognized as a full person in court. In the World Economic Forum’s 2014 global gender gap report that ranks countries based on gender equality, 14 MENA nations were in the bottom 20.
The Gates Foundation and Melinda Gates have worked hard to empower women economically, socially and culturally, however serious problems still remain. Even Gates, in a controversial op-ed piece in Science Magazine acknowledged that more can be done to put women and girls at the center of development work. Empowering women is not an easy task when traditional and cultural restrictions determine the law and norms, particularly in places like the Middle East. However, it is vital that we not give up or shy away because, as Melinda Gates said during our discussion, “If you lift women up, you will lift everyone else up.”