Press Room




Melinda Gates
Champions for Change Awards at Women Deliver
International Center for Research on Women
May 27, 2016

Thank you, Your Royal Highness. That was very kind.

Well, it seems odd to stand here in front of people, the board from ICRW, because you all have been at this work so much longer than I have. Forty years is a long time. I was 11 years old when you were founded.

And so, to stand here and talk to you about data is interesting. When we started to get more and more into the women and girls work, the acronym that would pop up all the time was ICRW. And you've been a role model for us in thinking about how to use data and the importance of data.

I thought maybe I would just tell — I'm also very cognizant of the fact that I was the opening speaker this morning when people are still jet-lagged, that I stand between you and dinner, and that I stand in front of many women standing on heels. So, I'm going to be very brief but I thought I would tell a couple of quick stories.

I think you all know that I'm a champion for family planning, but I was a reluctant family planning champion — not any longer, but when I first started in this. And just to give you a little sense of my journey through this work…as I said, I was 11 when ICRW was founded. I was 31 when I had my first child, a daughter. She's now in college.

And at age 31 was the first time anybody ever asked me if I was a feminist. And I didn't know how to answer that question. I had to really go home and think about it. Because I was a reluctant feminist, as many young girls are today. Now I'm 51, and I'm more than happy to say I'm a feminist. And I'm happy to say my husband is a feminist, too. That's another story, which I will save for later.

But I came reluctantly to family planning, because I'm Catholic. Yet, I would be out in the developing world, like so many of you, and talk to women in slums and villages, and I was shocked by how much they knew about contraceptives, and how much they were asking us for them. And they were asking over and over and over again. Everywhere I'd go. I'd go in to talk about one thing, but contraceptives are what they'd want to talk to me about. And I had to listen to them.

So, I was part of leading a global movement in 2012 to get contraceptives back on the global health and development agenda. I have to say, though, being Catholic, one of the phone calls I was reluctant to make — we have these series of phone calls, I find, over our lives — was with my parents, who are Catholic. I felt I had to call and tell them that this was what I was planning to do. And it was kind of like the phone call when I first called to tell them that I was dating Bill. I knew they weren't going to think that was such a great idea. They had funded my education, I'd only been working at Microsoft a short time, and to call and say you're dating the CEO, it didn't go over well, quite frankly.

And so, we'd been talking inside of our family that I was going to lead this effort, and my kids kept saying, “Well, what do gran and gramps think?” And I said, “Well, I'm going to call them and talk to them about it.” I called. Completely and totally supportive, which was awesome.

When I went to the Family Planning Summit, and we were getting ready for it as a team and trying to say, “What should our goal be? How many women by 2020 do we think we could realistically -- a stretch goal -- get onto contraceptives voluntarily?” Well, the data we had to try and make that decision was the poorest data I have ever seen.

And Chris is back there shaking his head, Chris Elias.

We would put these numbers up and, I mean, we had people modeling it and looking at graphs. They were point estimates. I'd worked in computer science; you don't work from that kind of data. And I kept saying, “My goodness, we're going to make this commitment with this data?” But that was all we had.

So, we came up with this agreement, 120 million women, but we knew when I stood at the podium and the rest of our partners did at this London Family Planning Summit, we had to go build a data system. It didn't exist.

Now we have a data system. We have young women going around with cell phones enumerating, doing these household surveys, asking about contraceptives, what's in supply, what did you want? We can get at the deep questions about whether their use was coerced, or was it truly voluntary.

When I see the power of that data and what it's allowing us to do; to say, “Are we on track for that goal, yes or no?” Sadly, the answer today is no. We're almost at the halfway point, but now at least we can look at the indicators and see what we have to do to accelerate.

And when I look at the power of that data, I know we have to have it everywhere else, because the role that Bill and I find ourselves in over time is going to governments and asking them to invest in vaccines, and asking them to invest in the Global Fund. We have great data on those two programs. We ask them to invest in family planning — good data. But when I go to governments and say, invest in women in girls, writ large, and I say this is where you should put your money down — we know some things, but I don't even know how to program our money. That's why data is so fundamentally and vitally important.

So, I came sort of reluctantly to family planning, but knew then it had to be done. Literally, the night I was finished with the London Family Planning Summit in July of 2012, I went to dinner with a group of women, some of whom are in this room tonight. And they also told me something that I didn't want to hear. They said, “You've only just begun — and it isn't just family planning.” There are all these other issues for women and girls that I would like to have turned my back towards, right?

But I find that this work over and over again calls us to do things that we're reluctant to do. But it's because of the women that we meet, and it's where you connect with them over their humanity and you say, that's why I'm going to go do that work, that's why I'm going to go find the partners who are doing it, find who knows what's going on.

So, I've come reluctantly to some of this work over time. I think you'll find 20 years from now when I'm 71, I will continue to say that I'm even more for women and girls, if that's possible.

It seems a little odd to me to receive an award when I'm 51 about work that I feel like I'm just beginning. But I can tell you now the phone calls home go even a lot easier. In the one this morning to Bill, early in the morning — I think a lot of us get up at probably 4am when we're in this time zone — he said, “Now, what is it you're announcing at Women Deliver?” And I said, “Trust me, you'll like it. Eighty million dollars. Data.” He's like, “I'm all in.”

So, the phone calls go easier these days, and I am no longer a reluctant champion for women and girls. And it's so great to stand in a room with so many of you who are always champions for women and girls. Thank you.


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