Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Empowered women make nations strong

By Melinda Gates, Special to CNN
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Wed May 29, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Melinda Gates: In developing world most women don't control home budgets, reproduction
  • She says when they do, kids fare much better on health, education, prosperity.
  • She says giving women power over reproduction, vaccination breaks cycle of mortality
  • Gates: Proper training gives women edge in agriculture; this converts to better life for family

Editor's note: Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This article was published as part of Gates' participation in Women Deliver, an international conference held this week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, focusing on the health and empowerment of girls and women.

(CNN) -- Sometimes a number can put a complicated truth in simple terms. Here's one: 20%. A child whose family budget is controlled by the mother is 20% more likely to survive.

Why? Women know what's best for their families. They make health care, nutritious food and education priorities. But most women in developing countries don't control household budgets, and many also don't control the circumstances of their own lives. If women everywhere had the power to determine their futures, the world would be forever transformed.

Melinda Gates
Melinda Gates

This week I will attend the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur. I'll be joined by more than 3,000 people who have dedicated their careers to empowering women and girls. The specifics of our work differ, but we're all united by a single, powerful idea: Empowered women and girls will save lives, make families more prosperous and help the poorest countries in the world build stronger economies.

Once you have a child, your career is over? Absolutely not

One key to empowerment—and an issue that's a personal priority for me—is letting women decide when to have children. Right now, more than 200 million women around the world say they don't want to have a child but are not using contraceptives. Some of these women will die from complications of pregnancy. Some will give birth to a child who dies. Many mothers who survive (and have children who survive) won't have the resources to feed or educate them.

More: CNN's 'Girl Rising'

Take, for example, a girl in Niger, where 75% of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Of course, Niger is small and has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, but there are large countries (including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Tanzania, with a total of 1.5 billion people) where more than 40% of girls become brides.

What happens to a child bride from one of these countries? If she can't use contraceptives, she gets pregnant, leaves school and probably never goes back. If she continues having children one after the next—"one on the back and one in the belly," as women have said to me—her health will deteriorate, along with the health of her babies. By the time her children are school age, they are likely to be malnourished and stunted, so even if they go to school, they won't be ready to learn. Unfortunately, there's a real probability that this very same cycle will start again.

To be born a girl in Afghanistan is often to be ushered into a life of servitude, where girls have very little worth and very dim futures. Amina is forced to marry at 12, to bear a child though still a child herself -- while her own brother is given her dowry money to buy a used car. But Amina, whose name was changed and story portrayed by an actress out of concern for her safety, has had enough, and she is fighting back.
CNN Films' "Girl Rising" tells the stories of Amina and other girls from around the world and how the power of education can change the world. Learn more about the girls' inspiring stories.
(From 10x10)
To be born a girl in Afghanistan is often to be ushered into a life of servitude, where girls have very little worth and very dim futures. Amina is forced to marry at 12, to bear a child though still a child herself -- while her own brother is given her dowry money to buy a used car. But Amina, whose name was changed and story portrayed by an actress out of concern for her safety, has had enough, and she is fighting back. CNN Films' "Girl Rising" tells the stories of Amina and other girls from around the world and how the power of education can change the world. Learn more about the girls' inspiring stories. (From 10x10)
Girl Rising
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
Girl Rising Girl Rising
Melinda Gates' fight for contraceptives
Birth control for the world's women

However, if these girls don't get pregnant and are able to stay in school, everything changes. They will be healthier. Their children will be healthier. Because they finished their schooling, they will be able to earn more money. That money will stretch further, because they will be supporting a smaller family. Their children will be set up to lead a better life than they did, which is the goal of every parent I know.

More: Christiane Amanpour's open letter to girls of the world

Last year, at the London Family Planning Summit, the world came together on a goal to reach 120 million more women and girls around the world with the family planning options they want for their families. Since then, almost two dozen countries have developed plans to make sure women have access to contraceptives.

Family planning is just the start. Women who have the power to decide when to get pregnant also must have the power to vaccinate their children, feed them healthy food and pay their school fees. Each of these things is a link in a chain of good health and prosperity.

Take agriculture. The vast majority of the world's poorest people farm small plots of land to grow their food and earn an income. Women do the majority of the agricultural work across Africa and South Asia, but they don't have equal access to information and farm supplies. As a result, plots of land worked by women generate lower yields than plots worked by men—as much as 40% lower.

If women can get the right training, high-quality seeds and access to irrigation and fertilizer, they will be able to grow more and more nutritious food while producing a surplus they can sell for a profit. Those are resources they can convert into a better life for their children.

Women Deliver is organized around the conviction that women and girls can start a virtuous cycle of development. They just need a little support to get it started. They need to be able to plan their pregnancies. They need to be able to grow enough food to support their families. Once these basics are in place, the only limit is women's ambition for the future.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melinda Gates.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT