Is gender equality achievable? “I think it’s going to get better. I think life by every measure is improving for women. But is it happening fast enough? No. I’m impatient, right? I want it to get better,” said Melinda Gates, 51, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the world’s biggest private charity with a close to $45 billion endowment.
“I want it to get better in the United States, quite frankly. I want to see more women in Congress. I want see more women CEOs. I want to see more women on Boards. Until you get women taking positions of power and across the economy, at all levels, we are not there yet, right?” she said.
And she wants the same for India, South East Asia and Africa. “Now I’m here almost every year,” said Melinda, who is currently on a three-day India visit to help women get these opportunities. She is spending Sunday in Uttar Pradesh, visiting women in their homes and girls at school to listen to what they do, what they want and help them get it through self-help initiatives.
“India is a great example. The self-help group platform, it isn’t there anywhere in the world the scale it is in India… this group I met in Jharkhand, they were going to government demanding the services they knew they could get, that they were entitled to but had not been asking for before... These steps are going to get us there,” she said.
More, but not enough
Are women better off today than a decade earlier? “Yes. Maternal deaths have come down significantly. Violence all over the world, if you look at world statistics, is coming down. But there are places you still need to root it out. In the United States, there is still a lot of sexual violence against girls in college, that’s finally coming out and becoming more transparent,” says Melinda, whose Foundation works in maternal and child health, financial services for the poor and agriculture.
Speak up, speak out
It’s happening in India too. “In India, I think it [rape and violence] is finally starting to be discussed more. Discussing it, recognising it as part of the problem is when you start to take action to reduce it. I think that’s really the next step,” she said.
Women, she said, didn’t speak up earlier because they thought the system would not do anything about it, but things have changed. “That’s the importance of openness and transparency. India has a free Press that I don’t see in some other countries. That makes a huge difference. When that rape trial came out, it was top of the news for a long time, both in India and internationally. And that’s how you start to create change,” she said.
“They [men] don’t like it, but they like the money women bring home. You need to empower women, you need to empower their voice but you also need to empower them economically because once you start to do that, you get fundamental change,” she said.
“I’ve seen that in countries across South East Asia, I’ve seen it in Africa, I’ve seen it in the United States. When women have economic opportunity, all of a sudden they are valued differently in the household,” she said.
“If she’s educated, she’s twice as likely to educate her daughter. So if you make sure they have good health and their children do, make sure they can take a decision, they are part of a self-help group, they are educated, then they get to have economic opportunity. And when you get that cycle of health, decision making, economic opportunity, you start the cycle for the next generation,” she said.
India’s report card
Melinda is here to learn firsthand what works and what doesn’t, and happily, more things seem on track than they were a decade ago. “We are seeing progress in childhood deaths coming down because of vaccines, we are seeing the maternal mortality rate we think will start to come down because they are going to institutions for delivery. We are working in both UP and Bihar to make sure those institutions have quality,” said Melinda.
The way ahead is strengthening public health systems using robust and smart data. “I’ve never been more optimistic about it. To see the government increase the health budget by 13%, to put more money into nutrition and how to make the aanganwadi system better, them using data in more robust and smarter ways now and I think that’s only going to improve the system,” she said.
“You can be anybody you want to be in the world and I’m gonna support you to do that.”
“Delay the birth of your first child till your body is formed, until you have a career, because you should be fulfilled in your family life and career. Wait a bit, because it will just change everything.”
What she’d like to hear women say to their sons
“Support your wife. It is not okay that she does six hours of unpaid work at home and you do an hour. That’s just not okay. It’s not. You’ll both be better off if you get that gender equity a bit closer.”
On the Gates family dream holiday
“They [my kids] already know what they want to do when they come to India. They have not been here before. They want to come and see the tiger reserve, which I would love to come and see too, to which I have not gone because I want to first do it with them.”
“They also want to see what life is actually like in the cities of India, and we will when we come, we will take them to slums. They have done that in other places in the world because it opens their eyes to different circumstances that people have.”
“They will also go to some schools. They love to see what the education system looks like.”