Melinda Gates has been a consistent voice for women around the world who are dealing with the wrenching circumstances of poverty. In an April 2012 TEDxChange talk, Gates called upon governments to establish universal access to birth control for women. The foundation plans to organize a world summit in London this summer to bring leaders together and raise $4 billion, the estimate of what it will cost to provide birth control to 120 million women in the developing world by 2020. “You simply cannot talk to real women about their lives and not hear the issue of family planning come up,” she says.
In a recent conversation, Fast Company discovered that Gates is a friend to, and supporter of, many of the other League members.
What compelled you to make family planning your signature issue?
This is actually where Bill and I started with the foundation. Even before we started with the vaccines, we were interested inreproductive health. And there are internal reasons why we ended up spending more time and energy for a while on vaccines. I think when you do a foundation, you want to get really good at your core competencies first, so we did vaccines and a whole host of other diseases. But it’s really something that I wanted us to come back to, and Bill has as well.
When you have a deep conversation with women in the developing world about their children or about their family lives--either at a health care facility or when I go out into the village--people will start to ask you, "Why can’t I get that family planning tool I used to be able to get?" It’s really stunned me how consistently I’ve been asked that question during the last ten years that I’ve traveled. When I ask back, "When was the last time you had it? Where did you go, what length did you go to get it?" The answers from the women are simply incredible: How far they’ll walk to a clinic, how important it is to them. There is this unbelievable demand in the developing world, and they literally don’t have the tools that we all take for granted.
What metrics about reproductive health get your attention?
How many babies die a year? How many maternal deaths are there every year? The world focuses on those two numbers now. We’re making progress in some countries, particularly in Africa, on some of those issues. But when you look at the statistics around reproductive tools, we know, for instance, that over 200 million women still have a need or desire but can’t get one. And some 600,000 babies die as a result of an unwanted pregnancy where something went wrong in childbirth. Another 100,000 women die in childbirth who didn’t want to be pregnant.
The enormity of the problem is striking, even overwhelming. How do you keep it in context for yourself?
I think the reason it is so important to go out into the developing world is that you meet real women. You really start to understand what their lives are about, and you start to say, "That could be me. That so easily could be me." Me living in Bangladesh or in Malawi, in these exact circumstances--the stories are absolutely gut wrenching and they move me deeply. The most important thing to do is to process them and say, "What is possible?" And to realize when I come back to a place like Seattle or New York, or when I’m being an advocate on the Hill in Washington, DC, to remember the voices of those women, and that they don’t have voice in these large global institutions. Those of us who are in positions to give voice to those women--that is our role.
Have you found unexpected pockets of support?
Yes! I go up to the TED website every now and then to see who has viewed my speech and what they’ve said about it. What’s really phenomenal is the conversation going on around that speech, both for and against. I’m hearing from lots of women and men who are saying that though they have wrestled with this because of their religion, they are open. Some 98% of Catholic women believe in contraception (for married, sexually active women). There are reasons to have critics, but there are also wide swaths of support, even on some of the Catholic websites.
You participated in the Girl Effect discussion at Davos in 2009. Nike Foundation CEO Maria Eitel says that having you on the panel helped validate the issue of extreme poverty.
Maria is fantastic. Maria saw the issue of the Girl Effect very early on. She looked at what Nike’s assets were and she said okay, this is an issue that our foundation can get behind. It’s not going to be something that people are going to sign on to easily, they’re not going to get it necessarily the first time. But she kept going around to other foundations and really pushing it and asking us to look at our own statistics. She said, look at your own programs, go and take this apart and figure it out in your own programs. She really pushed people to think differently about the problems and to assess their own work. That’s where she was so effective.
Secretary Clinton has re-made the State Department for the modern age. It’s more collaborative, more focused on impact and, of course, women’s issues. What do you think of her work?
I think she’s made sure that women are front and center. Think about bringing on Melanne Verveer [Ambassador-at-Large, Global Women’s Issues]--that position didn’t exist before. Melanne and Secretary Clinton have been able to make sure that women and girls continue to be on the global agenda. I run into them everywhere! I was just in Bangladesh in January, and sure enough Melanne had just been there visiting the women and girls programs on the ground.
This is very real for Secretary Clinton. She is walking the walk of what she really believes.
What’s the next phase of the Gates Foundation?
We don’t think of our work in phases. This is something that we are going to do for our lifetime. We are deeply invested in global health. So one of the things that we want to say to people is: Get on board. While some of these issues look tough, they are the right thing to do for women and girls on the ground in these places that we all care about. These are things we all care about. We all care about mothers not dying and children not dying. If you say that to anybody, they say OF COURSE I care.
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company.