Why Melinda Gates Is Investing $20M In The Global Women's Movement
“For most of history, women haven’t had equal access to formal structures of power. So they’ve gotten good at taking matters into their own hands and forming movements for change,” says Melinda Gates co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Gates announced in September at an event in New York, that the Foundation will make a $20 million investment over the next three years to strengthen women’s groups worldwide. This commitment is an investment in the power of women’s movements through the funding of local organizations, platforms, and campaigns committed to advancing gender equality.
Gates says this investment is needed because of the diverse needs of women and girls worldwide. “Every women’s movement has its own context and its own goals. But there’s one thing they all share: they’re driven by local leaders who have a deep, personal stake in the problem, and know better than anyone how to solve it,” she says.
A recent example Gates shared is Leymah Gbowee who won a Nobel Peace Prize for leading the women’s movement that helped end Liberia’s brutal, decade-long civil war. “When I asked her, what made that movement successful, she told me that their motivation wasn’t politics or power— ‘it was about sustaining our livelihood.’”
In this interview Gates shares why investing in these movements is the key to empowering women and what everyone can start doing to advance gender equality from the ground up.
Michelle King: Why is it important to invest in women’s movements to advance gender equality?
Melinda Gates: It’s no coincidence that you can find grassroots women’s movements wherever you’re seeing gains in gender equality. That was true a century ago, when a grassroots movement won American women the right to vote. And it’s true today, as women campaign for workers’ rights in Pakistan, widows’ rights in Ethiopia, disability rights in Indonesia, and equality all over the world. With that in mind, the case for investing in women’s movements becomes pretty clear. If we’re serious about changing the world, we should invest in the people who already are.
King: How can grass roots organizations advance gender equality in a way that other programs cannot?
Gates: We know that gender inequality is a problem everywhere. But the way it manifests is very local; it doesn’t look the same in a place like Kenya or Senegal as it does in, say, Silicon Valley. So you need people on the ground who can develop homegrown solutions, and that’s where women’s movements come in. They have deep knowledge of local contexts and unique insight into solutions—much more than those of us based 5,000 miles away. And the evidence backs this up. A study looking at 70 countries over four decades showed that women’s movements were more effective at advancing policy change, particularly on violence against women, than many other forces, including economic growth and political leadership.
King: Why do women’s movements lack access to finance – especially if they are so impactful?
Gates: Bias is one reason. Historically, the world has treated gender equality as a “soft issue” and under-invested in it as a result. Second, as I’ve mentioned, women’s movements are usually small and local. That makes them effective—but if you’re a large foundation or a government, it can also make them harder to reach. Sometimes they’re not even formally registered as organizations or connected to reliable internet. Third, we know that progress isn’t always linear, and these movements may not always have immediate impact. Gender inequalities have been entrenched for centuries, so as funders we have to be willing to accept that victories won’t always come overnight, and we have to provide long-term, flexible support.
King: What are some of the biggest challenges women face trying advance gender equality?
Gates: Wherever there are women working to push the world forward, there are others trying to hold them back. And women’s rights activists are under threat like never before—from online trolling, to physical intimidation and violence, to unjust laws designed to protect the status quo.
We need leaders—male and female—who will call out these acts for what they are, and laws and policies that hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. And we can let these activists know they’re not alone by giving their work the attention and investment it deserves.
King: Can you share why this work, with women and girls, is important to you?
Gates: When we started the foundation, I had no idea empowering women and girls was going to be my life’s work. But then I started traveling to the world’s poorest places and meeting the women who live there. I carried so many of their stories home in my heart. A woman named Maryanne who told me she wants to give “every good thing” to her children. A woman named Anna who borrowed money from other women to start a small business that could lift her family out of poverty. A woman named Neelam who endured impossible things but vowed to fight for women as long as she’s alive. I couldn’t turn my back on these women—because I truly believe that through their everyday acts of courage and hope, they’re the ones who are changing the world.
King: What can everyone reading this do to support the women’s movement in their community?
Gates: If you’ve read this far, you already know more about women’s movements than most people. So try taking another step. Check out the Prospera network and consider supporting a movement you believe in. When you read about these campaigns in the news—and especially when you read about their hard-won victories—share these stories to spread the word.
It’s up to all of us to advocate for the women who are advocating for everyone else, and the more we do, the better off our world will be.