Ending Poverty Starts with Lifting Up Women and Girls
Giving girls and women the tools to propel themselves out of poverty is at the center of what we do. It’s also the subject of a new book by Melinda Gates called The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.
Gates, who is co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, discusses the vital importance of bringing the most vulnerable people, usually women, in from the margins of society. These girls and women, she writes, are so accustomed to others trampling on their most basic needs that they don’t even think to ask for change.
While Gates’ work to empower women in developing countries takes up the bulk of this interesting read she notes that women everywhere lack gender equality in the workplace and at home. Even in the most egalitarian societies, women do more unpaid work than men.
Gates tackles the subject of unpaid labour with gusto, delving into personal stories, helpfully describing how she and her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, addressed this issue in their own home when their children were young.
He took on pre-school car-pooling duties, for example, which, interestingly, encouraged more fathers at the school to share this task with their wives.
And, a personal favourite, no one in the Gates family was to leave the kitchen after dinner until she did – in other words, until all the tidying up was done. Gates is emphatic that ending unequal distribution of unpaid labour in the home is about partnership in marriage.
Connection is crucial
Similarly, addressing issues of gender equality in developing countries is a matter of building connection and understanding between people.
She writes, “In societies of deep poverty, women are pushed to the margins. Women are outsiders. That’s not a coincidence. When any community pushes any group out, especially its women, it’s creating a crisis that can only be reversed by bringing the outsiders back in.”
Photo credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website
Gates says that only by ending this “outsider” mentality, and creating connections between people, will we develop a means to end inequality and poverty.
The Moment of Lift is full of examples of how one can do that, and they all start by listening. Over the years, Gates has travelled to many remote communities around the world to listen to girls and women. A theme that emerged in her in work in the mid-1990s was the need to improve access to contraceptives for women in developing countries.
Later on, while working on an HIV/AIDS prevention project in India that focused on increasing condom use by sex workers, the women told her that condoms were not the problem: they knew about condoms. The issue was that the men wouldn’t wear them and asking them to do so increased on-the-job violence. Listening helped to orient the project in a way that delivered results: less violence, more condom usage and lower rates of HIV.
Gates also recalls learning from the charity Tostan in Senegal which uses empathy and dialogue to end the traditions of child marriage and female genital cutting. In a moving example, she describes how a community came together to end these practices and protect their daughters from a lifetime of health complications (from the cutting) and a lack of empowerment (as young child brides denied an education).
Transformative power of education
A girl who has the opportunity to go to school learns to say “no” to biases in her society. Education gives her the tools and confidence to fight for a way into society from the margins to the center. It creates the engine for change.
Gates writes, “When you send a girl to school, the good deed never dies. It goes on for generations advancing every public good, from health to economic gain to gender equity and national prosperity.”
It’s a fact that educating a girl has crossover effects throughout society. To illustrate, Gates draws on her wide reservoir of experience along with a slew of anecdotal observations. She tells us about Kakenya Ntaiya, a 13-year-old Maasai girl in Kenya, who agreed to female genital cutting in exchange for permission from her father to continue her education.
Ultimately, Kakenya not only graduated from secondary school, she went on to study in the United States, earning a Ph.D in education. Then she returned to her village to open a school for girls.
Ever even-handed and mindful of problems closer to home, Gates also points out the discrepancies in the American educational system, which can marginalize children on the fringes. Children from inner cities or the rural poor are not always offered high school courses that would enable them to go to college. This reinforces inequalities and lack of connection.
The Moment of Lift resonated deeply with us as it is 60 million girls’ mission to fund education projects for children – especially girls – in some of the most vulnerable situations.
The Moment of Lift shows Gates’ real desire to make a difference in the world. Her late friend, Hans Rosling, had questioned how much American billionaires could do to solve global poverty and marginalization. But Gates has taken these issues to heart, meeting with people and immersing herself in finding solutions to meet the needs of people around the world.
If you’d like to learn more about how lifting up women can benefit whole societies, this book is a good place to start.