Review: The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates
Melinda Gates’ second visit to India was to Sonagachi in Kolkata in 2004, when she sat on a mat on the terrace of a half-constructed pucca home of one of the dozen sex workers she met in India’s biggest red light area. As co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she wanted to see for herself how the foundation’s US$338 million HIV-prevention project called Avahan was empowering women, mostly female sex workers, to say no to unprotected sex and gender violence.
I travelled with her to Sonagachi and asked why she needed to hear stories when her Gates Foundation’s USP was using data to clinically measure the impact of social interventions. The data is there, she said, but I have to hear from them what they want. They know best how change can be accelerated to reach many, many more, said Melinda, waving her hands like a conductor as she still does when she is excited about an idea.
I naively believed that the trip would be reduced to an anecdote over dinner and champagne for a woman who had quit her job after marrying Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates, who even then was the world’s richest man. I was wrong. 15 years on, Melinda Gates is working harder than ever to make the world more equitable by empowering women and providing them with opportunities and services to end poverty.
Her first book documents how she evolved from a career woman to a mother to one of the world’s biggest champions of gender equity and equal opportunity. “As women gain rights, families flourish, and so do societies... and when you’re working globally to include women and girls, who are half of every population, you’re working to benefit all members of every community. Gender equity lifts everyone,” writes Melinda, who realised family planning was just the first step for girls and women, who have to fight for equal opportunities from the moment they are born.
The book is peppered with candid personal accounts of what made her choose the road less travelled, including the tough decision to become a public advocate for family planning, a political and religious time bomb in many parts of the world, including the US. She writes that she had rightly anticipated that it would expose her to criticism given her Catholic upbringing and would keep her away from other foundation work and from her family. “But I began to feel that if anything was worth the cost, it was this.”
The lift-off analogy to define earthshaking change for the better comes from Melinda’s childhood. She was one of four children of a stay-at-home mom and an aerospace engineer dad who worked on the Apollo programme and grew up watching more than one lift-off, when the engines ignite, the earth stakes and the rocket takes off. The moment of lift is when the forces pushing us up overpower the forces pulling us down and that’s when we are free to fly. After getting her master’s degree, Melinda turned down a job offer from IMB, where she had worked for several summers, to take a job at a “smallish company called Microsoft”. She spent nine years there and eventually became the general manager of information products. “Today I work in philanthropy, spending most of my time searching for ways to improve people’s lives… and often worrying about people I will fail if I don’t get it right. I’m also the wife of Bill Gates. We got married on New Year’s Day in 1994. We have three children,” is how her résumé reads in 2019.
Melinda had the choice of having a career, of being a stay-at-home mom, of later being a mix of the two, and then getting back to a career because she had the opportunity to choose what she wanted to study, whom to marry, when and how many children to have, and when to quit her job because, as she puts it modestly, “We were in the fortunate position of not needing my income.”
The learnings from her several subsequent visits to India are a part of Melinda’s growth from a co-chair working behind the scenes to becoming one of the world’s biggest champions of women’s rights. Among the heroes is Ruchi, then 20, from Shivgarh in Uttar Pradesh, an upper-caste girl who defied community ridicule to save a low-caste newborn from dying of hypothermia by nestling him against her breasts after his family refused to do so fearing he was possessed by evil spirits.
There are several heart-wrenching accounts too, like Champa’s helplessness on being refused permission to get her two-year-old daughter Rani treated for acute malnutrition at the government’s free centre because she was needed at home to cook for her husband’s family. “If God takes away one child, he always gives another one. God is very great and generous in this respect,” said her drunk father-in-law, a sentiment I’ve heard more than once from husbands about their sick wives and children. Rani was saved because the village health-workers got her treated while her mother stayed home to cook. Others are not as fortunate and the challenge is to empower the Champas of the world so they can choose what is best for them and their families.
The book ends with her 2004 Kolkata visit, where the change touched Melinda as much as the sex workers she spent an afternoon with. “Beyond our conversations, what stuck me most about Gita and the other women I met was how much they wanted to touch and be touched. Nobody in the community touched a sex worker except to have sex with her. No matter what caste they are from, they are untouchable. For them, touching is acceptance.... a few of the women started singing the civil rights anthem ‘We shall oversome’ in Bengali-accented English, and I started to cry... For me, the contrast between their determination and their dire circumstances was both inspiring and heartbreaking.”
Heartbreak and inspiration are what fuel rights movements and help overcome the toughest of odds, even one as big as gender inequality.