Melinda Gates flexes her feminist muscles in 'The Moment of Lift'

We talk to Melinda Gates about life, work, inspiration and her new book

05 May 2019 - 00:06 By Jennifer Platt

We are jaded. Seems we have heard it all before: we have to empower women to have healthy, prosperous societies. But do we really hear it? Do we know what it means? What it entails? Do we care?
As the co-chair of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates is a powerhouse of thoughts, ideas and actions. She drives this message of gender equity through her foundation and her work. It is her down-to-earth pragmatism and her humanity that is evident in her latest book, The Moment of Lift, which demonstrates that by listening to each other, and especially to women, we can identify the problem and, often, the solution.
This is not one of those books that sells the ra-ra-ing of activism. It is the plain and simple story of doing good. It delivers on many levels. Gates talks about the women she meets, those who inspire her, and the fight for gender equity. That gender equity is not a want, but a desperate need that is integral for the world to fix its problems. She dives deep into how we can empower mothers and women by giving access to contraception, talking about family planning, highlighting the need to educate girls, and understanding why, for instance, female mutilation and arranged marriages are still happening and how we can talk to women about it.
The Moment of Lift is not preachy but it does make one understand the complexities of the world we live in. It's a world where the UN recently had to change its resolution on combating rape in conflict to exclude references in the document of sexual and reproductive health, after opposition from the US.
The Trumped-up rightwing government would have vetoed this important resolution if the change was not made. Why? Because they are refusing to agree to any UN documents being passed that refer to sexual or reproductive health, on grounds that such language supports abortion. The US government has also opposed the use of the word "gender", seeing it as tool for liberal agendas. So yes, The Moment of Lift is an urgent call for a worldwide belief and systematic change that will make all lives of equal value.
In the book, Gates demonstrates she is an ardent feminist. "To me it's simple. Being a feminist means believing that every woman should be able to use her voice and pursue her potential, and that women and men should work together to take down the barriers and end biases that hold women back. This came to me only after many years of listening to women - often women in extreme hardship whose stories taught me what leads to inequity and how human beings flourish."
What sparked the idea of the book?
This book is very personal to me. It's a chance to tell my story, but more importantly it's a chance to tell the stories of women I've met around the world. By sharing their stories with me, they called me to action. By sharing their stories in my book, I hope to do the same for others.
Why is it important to share stories?
Women's stories are a powerful thing. I believe women gain equality by changing the culture, and we can change the culture by sharing stories. But it's important to remember that sharing goes both ways; there's power in telling stories and there's power in listening to them.
In the book you refer to what is clearly your own mantra - that it is only through empathy, listening and love that we can change the world. How does your foundation provide the mechanisms for that to happen?
I think listening is one of the most important parts of our job. It's the only way to truly understand people's lives; to learn who they are, what they want, what they believe, and what barriers are standing in their way.
Our programmes start by listening to the people we're trying to serve. Even if we have the best of intentions, we can't hope to offer a community support unless it's in the context of their values, their concerns, and their needs. That doesn't mean we always get it right. But we listen as we go, and when we hear people telling us we've mis-stepped, we work to figure out what we heard wrong the first time so we can get it right.
You write that an activist preferred to use the word "cutting" rather than "mutilation". Is the language you chose to use very specific?
That activist was my friend and teacher Molly Melching, who has lived and worked in Senegal for most of her life. Molly never uses the term "female genital mutilation" because it's a term that's loaded with judgment, and she never wants to offend the people she is working to persuade. She thinks that a language gap is often indicative of an empathy gap. I think there's a lesson there for all of us. The words we use matter. And if we are truly approaching a community from a position of respect, our words will reflect that.
You write frankly about the failings of the Catholic church when it comes to its policy on contraception and female priests. Is it a constant struggle to remain faithful to the church?
It's true there are some issues on which I disagree with the Catholic church. That's no secret, and it's something I have had the chance to talk about with priests and nuns. What they've told me is that there are two things that matter more than anything else: whether I'm acting according to my conscience, and whether my conscience is informed by the teachings of the church. My answer to both of those questions is a firm "yes." When I speak up for women who need contraceptives to save their children's lives, for example, I'm acting according to the church's teachings about social justice and compassion for the poor.
You are open about how difficult it was to become equal partners with your husband. Michelle Obama also writes about this in Becoming. You both have partners who are strong leaders and it can be hard to get your own leadership across ...
Like a lot of men, Bill didn't grow up thinking about how hard society can make it for women to find our voices in equal partnership with men. Once he understood that, he made room for my voice every chance he got. Once I had that room, developing the muscles to take advantage of it got a lot easier.
How do you deal with anger towards the US government and its policies?
It's the mark of a society moving backward when men make decisions for women. But rather than sink into despair, I am inspired by the surge of women activists across the country who are taking their anger and turning it into action - by marching or running for office or crashing through glass ceilings.
There are many stories of hardship and how women overcome problems they face. Tell us about one of your most memorable experiences. 
I've met so many amazing women who have moved me in so many ways, but one experience that comes to mind is this: Our foundation was working to reduce HIV among Indian sex workers, and our first approach was to increase their awareness and use of condoms. They laughed at us. "We don't need your help with condoms," they said. "We'll teach you about condoms. We need help preventing violence."
What we learnt was that their clients would beat them up if they asked them to use condoms, and the police would beat them up if they were carrying condoms. We ended up helping them set up a speed-dial network: if a woman is attacked by police, she dials a three-digit code, and a group of 12-15 women would come running and shouting, along with a pro bono lawyer and a media person. The police backed down.
One woman returned to a police station where she had been beaten and raped, and they offered her a chair and a cup of tea. The head of our India office put it bluntly: "Every man who's a bully is scared of a group of women." Today, not only has violence against Indian sex workers plummeted, but so has HIV.
That's what I find most inspiring about the work I'm doing: seeing women all across the world discover how powerful they are when they come together.
• 'The Moment of Lift', Melinda Gates, Bluebird, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, R299..

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