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Conversation with Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates at London Summit on Family Planning

Controversy over reproductive rights has been at the forefront of our national conversation, but philanthropist Melinda Gates would like to take the controversy out and transform the narrative into a global one through education and advocacy. Gates along with her husband Bill Gates, of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is taking on the issue of international family planning, asserting that "empowering women to determine their future should not be controversial, no matter where you are." This past summer, Gates helped organize the London Summit on Family Planning which raised $2.6 billion in pledges to give 120 million more women access to contraceptives by 2020. And, in an effort to re-frame the conversation, the foundation has launched no-controversy.com, a Web site where among other things, visitors can take a pledge ("I believe every girl and woman deserves the opportunity to determine her future") and share their stories about how contraceptives have changed their lives. In the following interview, the passionate and compassionate Gates talks about why she considers family planning such a vital issue, how she views the role of philanthropy, her excitement over a new crowdfunding platform she helped launch called Catapult, and the many ways she says giving has enriched her life.

Marianne Schnall: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does such wonderful and important work around the world. I know that one of your current personal focuses and passions is around the issues of family planning. What was your motivation for launching the Family Planning Initiative and why is this important and what are your goals?

Melinda Gates: I've been traveling to developing countries for over a decade and I always try to take time to sit down and talk with women, to really understand what their lives are like. As I do that, I often try to focus the conversation around issues like vaccines or agriculture but time and again, they bring up family planning. These women are vociferous and often say, but what about the shot that I used to get that kept me from having children? Why can't I get that anymore? I started to realize that we had stepped away from family planning, as a world, because it had gotten controversial in the United States. We really weren't giving women the option to plan their lives -- the contraceptives that we take for granted here in the United States or in countries like the UK. And I really felt strongly that it was important to help our partners put that back on the agenda, because it saves women's lives and it saves children's lives.

MS: You are right that we do take these tools for granted here in the U.S., and it was startling to hear the statistic, I think it was 200 million women worldwide do not have access to family planning services and contraception. Why do you think this is and what are the global impacts of that fact?

MG: Well, a few things. One is that we stopped focusing on it as a world. We weren't putting enough resources behind it and saying this is really important. We were still doing family planning, and a lot of heroic individuals and organizations were doing great work to give women access to contraceptives, but not at the scale needed to reach hundreds of millions of women. Because of this lack of focus, many systemic barriers continued to keep women from getting access to the contraceptives they want.

For example, in Nigeria, reports indicated that there were no stock outs, that there were plenty of contraceptives available for women. When we did the research, though, we found that a large city in Nigeria was stocked out of the injectable contraceptives women prefer 226 days out of the year but it wasn't being reported because condoms were in stock. But condoms often don't work for women in the developing world because they can't negotiate condoms in their relationships. And so we needed to focus on what was really happening and ask the right questions. What do you need to do to fix the system? How do you make the contraceptives affordable? How do we make sure that we fund them and actually get them out to these very remote places where women live and want the services?

MS: How have your efforts been going? Because it does sound like there are probably quite a few obstacles and challenges -- how has the process been moving along?

MG: We co-hosted the London Summit on Family Planning with the UK Government on July 11, 2012, to help put women back at the heart of the global health agenda, and we led with the lifesaving potential of contraceptives. The key to success was the partners coming together to say not only is this important, but we're also going to put money behind it. We were joined by hundreds of leaders from developing countries, international agencies, civil society, foundations and the private sector and together, generated an estimated $4.3 billion in commitments to reach an additional 120 million women with contraceptives by 2020.

We've been working closely with leaders in a number of developing countries, who are putting together strong plans to increase access to contraceptives. I was in Senegal just before the Summit, meeting with our partners on the ground -- government, NGOs, civil society -- about the plan that they are putting forth that will now get rolled out and used countrywide. And that type of planning is going on in country after country in Africa.

MS: You have talked about that part of the reason that family planning efforts are often thwarted is because it is often seen as controversial and also the role that religious beliefs play -- how does that impact your efforts and what can we do to remove the controversy surrounding family planning and these issues?

MG: I think people need to remember that empowering women to determine their future should not be controversial, no matter where you are. The polls show 99 percent of American women and 98 percent of married Catholic women use contraceptives -- there is clearly support out there for women everywhere to have options available to them. We also need to remind people that while it may not be a life and death situation in the U.S., over 200,000 women and girls in the developing world die in childbirth every year who would survive if we gave them the contraceptives they want and need.

MS: It also seems like that the world community is starting to connect the dots -- to realize that issues do not exist in isolation. How do you see family planning as interconnected to other issues, for example, agriculture, education, nutrition, health?

MG: They are extremely interconnected and the people who are the most articulate on this topic are the women in the developing world. Above all else, they want to be able to feed their children a nutritious diet, provide medical care when their children are sick, and send their children to school. Over and over again, people tell me those are the three keys to the future they want for their kids. They're investing in the next generation. They don't want to see their children live in the circumstances they've lived in. They want them to be able to reach their full potential, but the only way to do that is to be able to plan and space the births, so they can then feed their children, keep them healthy and get them into school. And they talk about this in every single place I have gone.

MS: PBS recently aired Half the Sky, which is such a wonderful documentary about the unleashed potential of supporting women and girls globally -- and the impact of family planning is a symbol of that -- do you think the world community is starting to recognize how empowering and educating girls and women is not just a "women's issue," but is interconnected with helping all of humanity and the other serious problems that the world faces? What examples of this do you see?

MG: I think the world is realizing that it is incredibly important and that we need to do more and more to support women, because in many parts of the developing world their power is often very limited, as you saw in Half the Sky. And yet in so many cases, the power they have to make decisions is the key to their families' future. I was just in Tanzania speaking to a village savings and loan group and the women were very articulate about when they have access to cash and when they don't and how difficult their circumstances are. They are the best spokespeople about what they aspire to and what they need to achieve those goals.

One of the things I think the London Summit did is convey the message that women are front and center on the ground and should be front and center in our dialogue and on the global health agenda. Having organizations like Half the Sky and so many other partners and advocates keep this drumbeat going is going to serve us well over the long haul, because women and girls are the drivers of what happens in most families.

MS: Many people are no doubt affected by the stories of these women, how do they connect to them and help affect change?

MG: One of the things we get asked all the time by people is 'how can I help'? One of the initiatives that we have been supporting led by Women Deliver is an online crowdfunding platform connecting donors to projects that advance the lives of girls and women around the world called Catapult. Many of our partners are getting involved and this is a great opportunity to connect with people in the developing world in a real way and make a difference, so I'm very excited about that.

MS: You mentioned that you had just returned from a trip to Tanzania and I heard that you met with women farmers and that you spoke at a forum with Kofi Annan. What were those experiences like? Any stories that stand out to you to share?

MG: I met with women who were part of the village savings and loan group. While we were together, we participated in an exercise whereby they were invited to look at pictograms of household chores and indicate which were done by the women and which were done by their husbands. As they allocated the various activities, the women were blown away when they started to see the picture map of their daily lives, compared to their husbands. They started to realize about their own empowerment, and began questioning why their husbands couldn't get more involved. The women also articulated the gender dynamics at work in the household finances. The husband is often responsible for taking the crops to market, and takes ownership of the profit, with the women having to ask for money. We really have to find ways to help keep those crops in the hands of women so that they can take more control over their finances and balance the competing needs of feeding their child a nutritious meal and saving some for medical care and school fees.

MS: Are you feeling hopeful? Do you see progress as you are making these travels around the world?

MG: Definitely. And you see it all over Africa, where many governments are showing incredible leadership on development issues. Tanzania is a great example. One of the reasons I went to Tanzania is because they have made so much progress and we are starting to see the economic impact for people. The Tanzanian government committed to putting 10 percent of their GDP into agriculture, and they're almost at that level. When they're investing in agriculture, it helps poor families lift themselves up. And one of the most encouraging things that I am seeing is how the agriculture work is being combined with the nutrition work. The women learn about what they should be feeding their children and how to provide variety in their diet. Good nutrition helps the children be healthier, which ultimately helps them learn more in school, so again it's that whole cycle.

MS: I know that foreign aid has often been seen as us coming in as the "heroes" whereas I heard you talk in a recent television interview about how we need to give people in developing countries their own "path to sustainability" -- the tools and skills they need to lift themselves up. From your experience, do you believe this is the most effective approach?

MG: Absolutely and I think that's one of the things that we want to make sure governments understand. The fact is that if you put somebody on the path to self-sustainability, you don't have to rely on foreign aid forever. South Korea is a great example of a country that used to receive aid and is now giving it. And so foreign aid needs to be used -- and is being used, in most cases -- to help families lift themselves up. So they get a little bit more cash off of their farm, which they can invest in the future. Or they use a contraceptive that allows them to plan for their children so they can feed them properly. Bill and I spend a lot of our timing trying to show how these investments are making an enormous difference.

MS: I just helped organize a salon at the NoVo Foundation called "Women + Money: Reimagining Economics" with Kathy LeMay and Jennifer Buffett which talked about the need to redefine our current paradigms around money and the economy to better serve people and the planet, and the power of money as energy and as a force for good. How do you, yourself, view the role of private funds and philanthropy and achieving global development goals?

MG: Philanthropy can be a catalytic wedge. Everything we're talking about, whether it is family planning, vaccines, or improved maize seed -- ultimately they all need to be scaled up by governments. But what philanthropy can do, is bring forward ways of innovating -- show new ways of doing things that governments can then adopt and scale nationally. Philanthropy has to look for those innovations and invest in them. Invest in them rigorously and do the research to see whether the innovations really, really work. When you can do that, then I think you can work with governments to scale up and create meaningful change.

MS: I interview a lot of celebrities who give back, and although they have achieved fame and material success, which our society strives for, they often say they derive the most fulfillment from their charitable work. I'm thinking, for example, of someone like Natalie Portman who told me how she gets the most meaning in her life from her work with FINCA International and working with women in developing countries. I think this is often the missing piece about activism, which sounds so serious and so draining -- are the soul-fulfilling benefits. Our culture is very focused on receiving. What are the joys of giving? You obviously give so much and have had done such wonderful work.

MG: For Bill and me this is the focus of our life now and we get huge blessings out of our work at the foundation. It blesses our marriage, because we talk about these issues, we're passionate about them and we support one another, we see things together and separately and learn from that. It blesses our family life, because we talk with our kids about people across the world and ways that you might help them. We let them experience some of it. So it changes you in lots of meaningful and profound ways.

Part of what Bill and Warren [Buffett] and I are also trying to do with the Giving Pledge, is to get other people who are wealthy to give away half their wealth. What we tell them is, if they choose to get involved, they will be blown away by how joyful it actually is and how much fun it really is, and if they put their brains and their energy and their money behind something, they really can contribute to changing the world. And I believe that not just for somebody who's wealthy, but for somebody who volunteers in their local community and gives their time, too. And so there are a lot of benefits to giving back, time or resources, in either case.

MS: I know it takes a lot of effort and travel, and it's not always easy. What drives you? Where does your passion and energy as an advocate for these issues come from?

MG: It really is traveling in the developing world. You can't turn away, you don't want to turn away, but you're also so inspired -- when I go out and meet families who are lifting themselves up, doing their very best in very meager circumstances, you see that human ingenuity and it is incredibly uplifting. I also see it here in the U.S., going out to the schools and talking to students, where a great teacher has made a difference in their life -- I remember what great teachers I had, I think we all do. When you talk to those kids and you see that their potential is on fire that just keeps you going for a long time after that.

MS: What are you most proud of in your work with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? And what other projects or initiatives are you working on that most excite you?

MG: I'm really proud of what we accomplished with the London Summit on Family Planning this summer. The fact that we really had a strong group of partners and countries that came together and said this is important, we're going to commit to this. That was a great moment in time for us. The really hard work happens between now and 2020 and beyond, to make sure that we actually fulfill the pledges that were made to get 120 million more women access to the contraceptives they want. So I'm really proud of that.

I'm also very proud of what the Foundation has been able to accomplish in vaccines. Childhood deaths are down sharply in the past decade -- a lot of that has to do with new vaccines for childhood killers in the developing world, like the pneumococcus, which is a pneumonia disease, or rotavirus, a diarrheal disease. Those vaccines didn't exist before, and it's exciting seeing those new vaccines being delivered in places like Kenya. Around the time I was born, there were 20 million childhood deaths a year. Now we're below seven million -- that progress is accelerated by vaccines and I feel very good about the work the foundation and our partners have done in that space.

For more information about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, visit www.gatesfoundation.org.


Melinda Gates at a maternal and newborn health clinic in India.

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This interview originally appeared at The Huffington Post.



Other interviews by Marianne Schnall

Melinda Gates

As co-chairs, Bill and Melinda Gates shape and approve foundation strategies, review results, advocate for the foundationís issues, and help set the overall direction of the organization.

They meet with local, national, and international grantees and partners to further the foundationís goal of improving equity in the United States and around the world. They also use many public appearances, including speeches, interviews, and articles, to focus attention on these issues.

Melinda Gates received a bachelorís degree in computer science and economics from Duke University in 1986 and a masterís in business administration from Dukeís Fuqua School of Business in 1987.

After joining Microsoft Corp. in 1987, she distinguished herself in business as a leader in the development of many of Microsoftís multimedia products. In 1996, Gates retired from her position as Microsoftís General Manager of Information Products.

Since then, she has directed her energy toward the nonprofit world. In addition to her role with the foundation, she is a former member of the board of trustees of Duke University and is a former co-chair of the Washington State Governorís Commission on Early Learning.

Bill and Melinda Gates live in Medina, Wash., near Seattle. They have three children.

Follow Melinda Gates on Twitter: @melindagates

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©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.

Marianne's new book, based on her interviews with a diversity of well known women, is Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.

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