Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates is Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she shapes and approves strategies, reviews results, and sets the overall direction of the organization. While involved in all the organization’s endeavors, Gates’ focus on keeping women and girls in developing countries at the heart of the global health and development agenda is a critical driver of her work at the foundation. Melinda Gates received a bachelor’s degree from Duke and an MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School. After joining Microsoft Corp. in 1987, she helped develop many of Microsoft’s multimedia products. In 1996, Gates retired from her position and since then, has directed her energy toward the nonprofit world.

I care about universal access to family planning because every single woman in every single country in the world cares about her family, and contraceptives help them turn their caring into a better life for themselves and the people who rely on them.

Or, put another way, I care because Sharmila Devi cares.

Sharmila lives in northern India, in Bihar, one of the poorest states in the country. When I met her last year, she wouldn’t stop telling me how much she loves her four-month old daughter Babita (I remember the same euphoria when my three children were just born). Then she said she was worried that Babita wouldn’t have a chance at a rewarding future, and she described a courageous decision she had just made to boost her chances.

I believe in giving every woman the power to decide if, when, and how many children to have. I believe in it because it’s right. I believe in it because it’s a prerequisite for making the world a better place.

Sharmila’s mother-in-law expected her to abide by the local custom and space her children very close together, but Sharmila didn’t think she could provide for another child. So she met with a health worker to learn about contraceptives. Sharmila persuaded her husband that planning their family was a good idea, but her mother-in-law wouldn’t budge. In Sharmila’s community, mothers-in-law traditionally have huge sway over a family’s decision-making, but Sharmila finally concluded that she had to disobey her mother-in-law. She raised her voice and insisted on doing what she believed was best for Babita and the rest of the family.

Stories like Sharmila’s prove that women are a powerful force for good. The academic literature also proves it. Women are more likely to invest in the health and education of their children and the livelihood of their family. In fact, women will invest more of their income back into the family than men—up to 10 times more.

But they can only do it if they are empowered. At a basic level, women everywhere need three things: they need to be healthy; they need to be able to make decisions in their households, communities, and societies; and they need economic opportunities. With these three assets, they are able to improve the lives of those around them in myriad ways.

So if the equation is that an empowered woman equals an improved world, then we need to find the best ways to invest in empowerment. And family planning is one of the very best ways. Contraceptives can protect women’s health, planning pregnancies is part and parcel of the exercise of decision-making power, and the number and timing of children is an absolutely critical economic decision for every family.

I believe in giving every woman the power to decide if, when, and how many children to have. I believe in it because it’s right. I believe in it because it’s a prerequisite for making the world a better place.

Women like Sharmila inspire me. They face some of life’s most extreme challenges: disease, poverty, oppression. They spend their lives fighting to surmount those challenges.

So, if Sharmila is hopeful for her children’s future—and if she is willing to face the censure of her family and her community to give her children a chance, then we should be hopeful, too. And we should try to do our part. At the very least, we should care. A lot.