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Melinda French Gates, London Summit on Family Planning: Transcript of Remarks (Morning Session)

July 11, 2012

Well, this summit is surely one of the most exciting days of my life.  There is so much passion and talent in this room, and we’re making a historic commitment to improve the lives of millions of women across the planet.  I want to thank Secretary Mitchell, Dr. Babatunde, who I know is in the room, our colleagues at DFID, my colleagues at the foundation, and every one of you for your dedication and your leadership. 

Many of you in this room have been at work on this family planning issue for decades.  And our foundation got involved in family planning because we saw the impact you were already having.  And over and over, I’ve heard from women on the ground that they know they can create a better future for their families if they have access to contraceptives.  So this summit is an important milestone in the history of family planning. 

But it also marks a new beginning for all of us.  First, we are bringing far more resources, as you will hear today, to this effort than has ever been done before.  It’s an effort that’s being led by the developing countries themselves.  And second, we’ve brought partners together from all sectors to innovate in new and creative ways.  And you’ll hear some of those commitments later today.

But I think most important of everything we’re going to discuss in this room today is that we are putting women at the very center of this issue.  We have a litmus test for ourselves.  Are we making it easier for women to get access to the contraceptives they need when they need them?  That is the question that we have to put to ourselves. 

Now, working in global health, I can tell you, is not always joyous.  But today it is.  Today is a chance for us to reflect on everything we’ve accomplished so far and to move forward together with new conviction to empower women to lift up their families and to lift up their communities.  There’s a very simple reason that the partners called the summit together, and that is that hundreds of millions of women who don’t have access to contraceptives demand our action. 

Four days ago, I met a woman named Sadi in Niger in a remote village.  She had six children: five girls, one boy. She told me she didn’t know about contraceptives until after the birth of her third child, and then she began spacing the births of her children.  So when I asked Sadi why family planning was important to her and what hopes she has for her children, here’s what Sadie had to say: 

Because when you don’t do family planning, everybody suffers in the family. The entire family suffers. Not only do you suffer because you have a baby on the back and you have another one inside, now your husband has to take debts to cover family expenses, and there are times you don’t even have enough money, even the debts won’t be enough to cover everything, to cover the very basics. So it’s complete suffering when you don’t do family planning. And I have lived that. I really want my children’s lives to be different from mine because I haven’t had a chance to be educated.

I have not been to schools. It’s a big problem for me, but I want that to be different for my children. Because if you haven’t gone to school, you are comparable to an animal in a way. I really want my children to have the means to take care of themselves their own ways because I do suffer a lot. I have to fetch water, I have to fetch papaya root. I want their lives to be different. 

Every where I go, I sit down with women like Sadi, and hear those same stories over and over and over again. She couldn’t have had it better than the many women that we all hear from. The best part of my work at the foundation is being out in the field talking with women like her. And I know you all have experienced this. Some of the stories that you hear are unbelievably difficult. And some of you in this room have lived some of those stories. But after these visits, I’m always left with this overwhelming sense of women’s resilience around the world and their hope for the future.

During one of these conversations that I had in Korogocho, a slum outside of Nairobi, about two years ago, I talked with a whole women’s group. And at the end of it, one of the women stood up and summed up something that I will not forget my entire life. Her name was Marianne. And she said, “You wanna know the reason I want access to contraceptives?”  She said, “I want to bring every good thing to this child,” which she was holding, “before I have another one.” And I thought, that’s it.  That’s not only what this women’s group wants. That’s what I hear all over the world. It’s a single phrase that captures the reason we’re all in this room together today. Every single mother and father wants to bring every good thing to their children. It’s true of Marianne, it’s certainly true of me, and I know it’s true of all of you.

That desire for every good thing is universal. Access to contraceptives, however, is not universal, and that’s why we’re all here. Marianne told me her vision, when I asked her the same question, for her future. She said, “I want to be healthy myself, I want to give birth to healthy children, I want to be able to feed them. If they’re sick, I want to take them to a doctor, and I want to educate them. I want a different future for my children than what I had.” And to do this, she was very clear. She has to be able to decide when to give birth to another child. And she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to make that decision on her own or not. But working together, we can all help give Marianne and hundreds of millions of women like her that power.

Now there’s a woman who introduced me to Marianne. She translated the conversation, and she’s a longstanding partner of the foundation. Her name is Jane Otai. I’m honored, these days, to call Jane a friend. She grew up in the slum of Korogocho, and through her sheer tenacity and the help of some special people in her community, she got an education. She decided then to go back to Korogocho and to work with young women facing the challenges that she overcame. Jane is living proof that an empowered woman is an engine of a better future for all of us. I’d like to ask Jane to join us and convey what this summit means to her and to the women she works with every single day.  Jane.

JANE OTAI:

Thank you very much, Melinda, and thank you everybody for being here and talking about something that is very personal to me, and I believe, that is very important to you. I’ll tell you something about my growing up in the urban slums of Korogocho in Nairobi. And looking at the slum, it’s an overcrowded community, a very, very poor community. But for me, this is home. I call it home because that is the home that I know.

And growing up in Korogocho for many women and children is very difficult. There is a lot of poverty. Food was a problem in my family. Housing was a problem. We were seven children, but our mother tried very hard to feed us and to educate us. And all along, when things became very hard and we could not have food, the church was there for me. And the church and the bishop in the church, Kitonga, always helped out with food, with education, gave me school fees, and encouraged me to continue with education. And my mother was a role model for me. She told me, “You know, Jane, you can do anything. You can become what you want to become. All you need to do is to study very hard and to wait. Do not get children as early as I did. Because that destroyed my life.” And I listened to them. And I made a decision.  Because of what they told me, I made a decision. And the decision I made was that I was going to go to college, and I was going to wait before I get my first child until I complete my education.

And this I did. On both ends I was successful. I waited, and at twenty-nine years of age, that is when I first got my child. And today I have three lovely children, just like Melinda has, and they are a joy to me. But… my son once asked me, “What do you do every day? Where do you go to work?” And I told him, “I work for Jhpiego,” a good organization that has helped me to go back to the community where I grew, to encourage girls, to encourage women in issues of health. But most of all, these are girls who are my friends. They confide in me. They trust me. And they also want to have children and space them like I do and educate them just like I’m educated. And I tell them that it’s possible. They can dream. They they can have big dreams, just like I did. And all that they need to do is to be very careful, to wait until they are ready to have their first pregnancy, not to run into pregnancy because it impacts their life.

And because somebody told me about family planning very early, I was able to take it up and to be able to space my children and even delay my first pregnancy. And that’s the reason I am here. If it wasn’t for family planning, I believe I would be like any other child in Korogocho. So women in Korogocho have said it very loudly and clearly. They want family planning services. And I believe that today in this room, you can make a difference for the women living in settlements and in Africa to have access to family planning services. So thank you so much. I believe that you’ll make a good decision for these women, and more women will have access to family planning.

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