Why Development Begins with Women: Melinda Gates

imagesOne of the best parts of my job is the opportunity to talk to women and girls all over the world. As different as our lives may seem, I’m always struck by how much we share in common. At some level, all women, everywhere, have the same hopes: we want to be self-sufficient and create better lives for ourselves and our loved ones. And if we have children, we want them to have the brightest futures possible, full of the chances and opportunities they deserve.

For these reasons, women and girls are some of the development community’s most valuable allies. And that’s why, when I’m not in the field meeting with women and girls, I’m working to ensure that they are at the center of our development efforts. As I’ve told our partners all over the world, this isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing—because when women are empowered, they use that power to lift others up. They help everyone around them stand on their own two feet.

Research tells us that women invest more of their earnings than men do in their family’s well-being—as much as ten times more. They prioritize things like healthcare, nutritious food, and education. When a mother controls her family’s budget, her children are 20 percent more likely to survive—and much more likely to thrive. Healthier, better educated children today lead to a stronger workforce and more prosperous communities tomorrow.

This virtuous cycle is possible –but it’s not inevitable. In order to get it started, we have to be very deliberate about how women and girls fit into our development efforts. Instead of thinking as ourselves as working for women in developing countries, we need to find more ways to work with these women. Development is a two-way street, and it’s more effective when ideas are flowing in both directions.

For a good illustration of what this looks like in practice, consider the Grameen Foundation, a partner of ours working in Ghana on a project called MOTECH. MOTECH is fighting maternal and infant mortality by using mobile phones to help pregnant women access vital health information. The Grameen Foundation understands that in order to truly empower women as agents of development, it needs to work in partnership with the women it serves. That’s why the most valued consultants on the MOTECH project are local women themselves, who have proven crucial in designing and improving MOTECH’s services.

For example, at the beginning of the program, MOTECH used text messages to share health information with women. But, as local women pointed out, this presented some problems. First, many of them couldn’t read, so they preferred to receive voice messages. Second, their husbands usually controlled the family phone, so it was difficult to actually access their messages. By taking directions from these women, Grameen was able to design a more effective program that reached more women—and ensured these important messages were getting across in a way that was meaningful.

Taken together, even changes as small as these can be the difference between life and death for a woman and her baby. And when these changes are replicated over and over again, they have the power to curve trend lines and drive progress.

In fact, we’ve seen this happen already. Today, more children are living past their fifth birthday than ever before, because their parents are demanding they receive vaccines and better nutrition. Infant and maternal mortality rates are falling, because mothers and midwives are working together to embrace new innovations to make childbirth safer and infants’ first days less risky. We are within reach of eradicating polio forever, because a cadre of frontline health workers—almost all of them women—are working to bring basic healthcare services to even the poorest, most remote corners for the globe.

Every day, all over the world, women and girls are proving that if we recognize them as vital partners in development, change is possible. The women and girls I meet are ready and willing to help drive development. But first, we have to make the effort to put them in the driver’s seat.

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