Melinda Gates needs no introduction. She is an icon known all over the globe for her philanthropy work. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the organisation she co-chairs with her husband, Bill Gates, donates billions of dollars toward improving people’s health and well-being. In Uganda, Gates monies have helped millions of people access HIV/Aids life relief drugs, the Anti-Retrial Viral Therapy drugs, family planning services and modern contraceptives, and malaria treatment, among others.
But for a woman who co-chairs a $39.6bn-rich foundation and a wife to the world’s richest man, one can only imagine what a meeting with her can be like.
I met Melinda at the Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in May. About 5,733 delegates from 169 countries met at a conference that sought to ally girls’ and women’s health and rights in the recently launched world development blueprint, the Sustainable Development Goals. Melinda had just given a keynote address and I was one of the six persons invited for a 40-minute media roundtable discussion with her.
Meeting Melinda Gates
Dressed in a sky blue suit, Melinda was graceful, professional and humble. “Hello, my name is Melinda Gates,” she greeted me with a firm handshake and a smile. “There are drinks here, feel free to pick what you like,” she said, pointing to a table at one end of the room. She grabbed a soft drink for herself, and joined me at the table.
She speaks calmly but passionately. Melinda’s life is largely punctuated by efforts to assist particularly women pull themselves out of poverty. “I meet a lot of people both men and women in the villages, in the slums all over the world. I see the reality of their lives. I see this disparity particularly (with) women. I see the burden they carry and their children. Under difficult circumstances in the slum, she has to somehow put food on the table,” Melinda noted before adding, “If we don’t empower such women, we can’t empower families.”
For Melinda, empowering women means making specific investments for women in health, economic opportunities and decision making especially regarding family planning. “Women have to make their own judgment on which option to take,” she says, referring to modern contraceptives. “Our job is to make available as many possible options on the table.”
Investing in women and girls
In a world where women hustle daily fending for their families and a lot of that work at home goes unpaid let alone recognised, Melinda says there is need to recognise what unpaid work is. But there is whole lack of statistics on women and gender and what is being done to improve their health and wellbeing.
Thus at the conference, Melinda announced the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will in the next three years invest $80m to close the gender data gap. “It is great women and girls are at the heart of Sustainable Development Goals. But right now there is insufficient data to build a baseline for nearly 80 per cent of gender equality indicators,” she said. “If advocacy for women and girls is about giving voice to the voiceless, gathering and analysing data is about making the invisible visible. We need to build a data system on what we are doing, what is and what is not working?”
What keeps Melinda awake at night?
But what keeps Melinda awake? “Besides my two teenage children?” she jokes, laughing heartily. “Sometimes, I feel like we don’t know as much as we need to know,” she revealed. “In 2012, around the time of the Family Planning Summit in London, I was always up and about worrying about whether we had the right goals, partners and the funding we needed?”
Imagine the wife to the world’s richest man worrying about money for her projects! “It is not only our own money,” she clarified, “But we also ask other partners and governments to contribute, and these are big responsibilities.” Melinda says she and her team are still learning, and the success of her foundation’s projects makes her optimistic of a better world.
She is hopeful for a polio and malaria-free Africa. “It is milestone seeing no polio case on the African continent in the last one year. That can be done with other diseases like malaria,” she says. Malaria adversely affects children under five and expectant mothers. According to the World Health Organisation, malaria is one of the five leading causes of death in under-five children in sub Saharan Africa.
The others are premature birth complications, pneumonia, deprivation of oxygen to a newborn and diarrhoea. In Uganda, according to the Ministry of Health Malaria Control Programme, Uganda has the sixth highest number of annual deaths from malaria in Africa, as well as some of the highest reported malaria transmission rates in the world, with approximately 16 million cases reported in 2013 and over 10,500 deaths annually. “That’s why we are investing in malaria prevention,” Melinda stressed.
Child health is dear to her and she is angry with saboteurs of vaccination programmes. “I have vaccinated my own children. Every parent wants their children to be safe. The vaccines are quality tested and proved to be safe so anybody who says anything against that is just false and that makes me angry.”
Improving health and wellbeing of people is what the 51-year-old has committed her life to. “What inspires me is the unbelievable love for children from the people I meet. You meet a mum and dad in the developing world quite often and they will say ‘this is what I am doing to invest in my child’s education’. And we have got chance to help them do just that.”
Melinda at home
At home in Washington, USA, bonding for her family is at the dinner table. “There might be things that keep us away most times of the day but Bill and I try to be at home for dinner as much as we can, for we really think dinner is important,” she revealed. She likes outdoor activities. “I want to be out on the kayak, take a bicycle or jog,” she says, adding; “I like watching movies, so Bill and I take time off and go and watch a movie.”
The Gates have two teenagers; Phoebe Adele Gates, 13; and Rory John Gates, 17; and an elder 20-year-old, Jennifer Katharine Gates.