Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted Melinda Gates to speak as part of their Smart Women, Smart Power series. The title of her discussion was "Women and Girls: Engines for Development". Our intern, Rebecca Lamb, was able to attend this event. Please see her reflections on the event below:
As part of CSIS’s Smart Women, Smart Power series, I attended a talk called, “Women and Girls: Engines of Development,” featuring Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When talking about the work of the Gates Foundation, Mrs. Gates talked about the necessary partnership between scientific innovations and progress in solving problems in the developing world, such as the need for research for vaccine development, and the potential of GMO crops to address global hunger.
Mrs. Gates was also asked about the Foundation’s current focus of putting women and girls front and center when talking about development. She stated, "We’re just beginning this work- it’s not that we haven’t focused in our individual strategies some on women and girls, but we haven’t put them front and center. How would you knit our strategies together, and we sometimes we make false assumptions about our strategies if you don’t put what is called a gender lens on it.” She gave an example from one of the ongoing projects. “We have these new seeds that are coming out, that are drought resistance and give more yield. We know half the farmers are women, but if we just assume that they are going to get the seed, that’s a false assumption, because the agro dealers in Africa only deal with the men, the seeds don’t reach the women. So you have to program specifically to reach the women. Women will tell you when there is a health shock in the household, it is the woman’s finances that pay for that- they negotiate with their husband once a year about how much money is going into the household and then they manage it. Even if we try to put a new crop in a woman’s hands, she’ll tell you ‘if my husband is the one that takes it to market, and he gets the cash, I have to renegotiate for it.’ The research has shown us, for every marginal dollar a women gets, she’s 90% more likely to plow it back into her family’s hands then her husband is. When a woman gets a little bit of cash in their hands, the power dynamic in the household changes, and they invest in the health and education of their kids. When you talk to people about their lives and what they dream about, almost to the 100% level the answer I get is ’educating my kids, because if I can educate my kids, they can get out of the situation, they can move to the urban areas and have a better life than I did’.”
Ms. Gates attributes a large number of success stories for women’s empowerment to the widespread use of women’s self-help groups. They start at the beginning putting in pieces of education about health or agriculture, and then eventually start to empower themselves and start to work on the issues that are really important to them and their communities. Partner’s Haiti Nutrition Security Program works in a similar way, giving women leaders the health information that they need in a safe and secure fashion so that they can spread that information through their neighbors and friends.
In addition, Ms. Gates also spoke briefly on her views of GMO’s on global food security, specifically about the protests against the science. “GMOs are an important piece for feeding people. If you have a new seed variety that gets more yield, or a new rice seed- the farmers near the equator will tell you the rains are coming at different times and coming in torrential rainstorms- they get can a rice crop that is drought and flood resistance and then they can feed their family.” With climate change affecting weather patterns all over the world, farmers will have to rely on more technology to maintain the yields they need to feed their family and cover other living expenses. “One thing we’re working on is increasing the number of academics in agronomy in Africa, so they can decide for themselves about creating a regulatory committee and deciding what is best for themselves- it makes no sense for us to go to the grocery store and buy GMO food and yet say to them that we won’t give them the seed and the ability to decide for themselves.”
The overall message that Mrs. Gates effectively portrayed through her research and stories of personal experiences was that it makes sense, economically and socially, to invest in women and girls. The innovations that cutting edge scientists are making can have a drastic and positive effect on the lives and livelihoods of almost 50% of women around the world. Mrs. Gates said she considered three questions when doing this work. First, are they and their children healthy? Second, do they have the ability to make decisions in their own home? Third, do they have economic opportunity? “If you can help women in all three of those areas, then you have an empowered woman.”
Volunteers with Partners have seen the truth of this through their own work with Farmer-to-Farmer. Rebecca Roebber, who was featured on this blog (see blog entry here), spent time in Panama teaching women to make and sell chocolate. She wrote, “It was amazing to see each of them contribute and take responsibility; from now on the women will assemble and conduct the meeting like they would any other meeting. Everyone was participating, speaking and contributing such a huge accomplishment from the first few days, where they hardly knew each other’s names. Their enthusiasm, appreciation and effort that they showed in the last couple days of the course were the biggest success of the project.” Partners AFS will continue to empower women to be agents of change, for themselves and their communities.
You can listen or watch the whole conversation here.