Press Room




Melinda Gates
Women Deliver Conference
Copenhagen, Denmark
May 17, 2016

Thank you, Geeta, for that gracious introduction. Good morning – it’s great to be here with you all again.

When I was growing up in Texas in the 1970s, I knew I wanted a career in computer science. That required a little bit of imagination. I didn’t know a lot of women who worked outside the home. And I certainly didn’t know any who had jobs like the one I aspired to.

But I was lucky. I had a mother who encouraged me to be anyone or anything I wanted. And my father insisted that being a girl should never limit my dreams. My dad even made a point of introducing me to the great women he knew and worked with. One was a mathematician. And he said his team was always better when she was on it. From an early age, I saw that women’s contributions and ideas are just as important as men’s.

As all of us here know, even today, society doesn’t always give young women these messages. I was fortunate to have a mother and father who did. I’ll always be grateful to them for that. Their support set me on the path to a career in computer science. It also taught me what it means to be a champion for women and girls.

This room is filled with champions. Most of you have been doing this work a lot longer than I have. Global health and development is my second career. And I have learned a lot from this community about what it means to be an advocate and an activist. Your influence has been profound. Not just on me, but on our foundation. You have pushed us to rethink our approach and priorities over time.

When I first spoke at this conference six years ago, I focused on how - together - we could improve maternal, newborn, and child health. Three years ago my focus was raising awareness of family planning. And today, I am here to talk about our expanded focus on the wider goal of gender equality. In particular, how we can’t close the gender gap without first closing the data gap.

By many metrics, there has never been a better time to be a woman. Since 1990, the number of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth every year has dropped by nearly half. Almost 25 million more women are using modern contraceptives now than three years ago. And - globally - just about as many girls go to primary school as boys.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go on these and many other issues before we achieve true gender equality. But the progress we’ve made so far makes me optimistic that we can get there. It is critical that we do. Supporting women and girls to reach their full potential unleashes the world’s most powerful force for economic and social progress for all. It will do more than anything else to ensure equality, secure universal rights, and advance human history. Which is why it’s crucial, that we make good on the promise of gender equality in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Getting 193 world leaders to sign their names against that pledge was not easy. But the fact that governments recognized what this community has known for years, was a historic breakthrough. Today women and girls are not just on the agenda; they are the agenda. The momentum is with us. We're in the midst of an international movement for gender equality unlike anything we have ever seen. The world is finally listening. And we owe it to every woman and every girl in every country to make the most of this opportunity – and to turn the SDGs into a reality.

We also owe it to ourselves. This community is made up of some of the smartest, most dedicated, most dogged individuals and organizations I have ever come across. We have committed our lives to overcoming centuries of inequality, injustice, and indignity. And we deserve the very best tools to help us succeed.

One of those tools is more and better data. We live in the information age. Netflix can see what movies we like. DHL can see where millions of packages are, anywhere in the world, at any time. Nike can see exactly what needs restocking on its shelves and when. But in our field of global health and development vast blind spots remain. This inhibits our efficiency, and our effectiveness to act. As you have highlighted for years, this is especially true when it comes to even the most basic information on women and girls. Where and when they are born, how many hours they work, if and what they get paid, whether they’ve experienced violence, how they die.

It’s great that women and girls are at the heart of the SDGs. But right now there is insufficient data to build a baseline for nearly 80 percent of “SDG 5” indicators. If advocacy for women and girls is about giving voice to the voiceless – gathering and analyzing data is about making the invisible visible.

There are already some great examples out there of how data is profoundly helping to extend the reach and scale of our work. Data is helping to expand digital finance to rural women in India. Data is helping to target HIV prevention, and treatment, to adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa. And data is helping us get back on track with our shared goal to ensure 120 million more women have access to contraceptives by 2020.

Imagine what more we could achieve with even more robust and rigorous data. Imagine how women farmers could be empowered, if we had more evidence of the policies, laws, and practices that deny them land. Imagine the progress we could make on tackling the 15 million child marriages every year, if births and marriages were properly recorded.

The hard reality is that in too many areas, data still doesn’t exist - and often: where it does exist, it’s sexist. It misses women and girls entirely, or undercounts and undervalues their economic and social contributions to their families, communities, and countries.

Think about many labor force surveys. By focusing only on the primary economic activity of a household, they tend to reinforce stereotypes: man as producer, woman as reproducer. This has the effect of making women appear more dependent and less productive than they actually are. When Uganda introduced survey questions to cover secondary activities, such as subsistence farming, the workforce magically increased by 700,000 people. Well guess what? The majority of them were women. And they had been there all along.

Then there are studies that assume the man as head of household. When surveys were carried out in Central America, unbiased by such assumptions, the proportion of female-led households in rural areas of Costa Rica and El Salvador doubled.

And what about all the hidden work women do that never gets measured? Globally, women spend on average four-and-a-half hours a day cooking, cleaning, caring, and more. It may be unpaid, but it’s still work. It may be unrecognized, but it still underpins every society and strengthens every economy. All of this inbuilt bias deepens the harmful stereotypes and practices that are grounded in the attitude that women and girls simply don’t count. Well we know that women and girls do count - and they are counting on us.

Women such as Neelam, whom I got to know last year in India. Neelam told me how she and her husband married out of love - and by defying tradition were ostracized from their village. They were financially ruined, and forced to migrate to look for work. The pain didn’t end there. Neelam was attacked by two men who tried to rape her. Then the community blamed her, and shamed her, for the assault.

But when Neelam joined a self-help group, her life turned around. It was in that group she learned new farming techniques that helped her not only increase her crop yields and income, but also regain her confidence and dignity. Neelam earned more respect and authority in her home. She was able to save for a moped for her teenage sons - who now boast about her. Her mother-in-law told me that she admires and listens to Neelam. Her husband now does his share of the chores – sometimes he collects water, or serves food and tea – and he’s proud of it.

Things changed for Neelam outside the home, too. She joined a tribal women’s network that makes sure the local government provides the services it should. And she told me that women who ignored her, now want her to speak at their meetings. She said: “Before, no one knew my name. Now, everyone knows my name.” Neelam is no longer invisible. Neelam counts. And to empower more women like her, we need precise information about their lives - and the discrimination they experience.

We can’t close the gender gap without closing the data gap. So today, I am announcing that our foundation will invest $80 million over the next three years to help do just that. This new money will improve methodologies for data collection, and allow us to collect data in areas such as time use, unpaid work, and economic empowerment. It will build on work already under way to provide a fuller, richer picture of the challenges women and girls face. And not only will we collect data – we will put that data to use. Because better data will help inform better policy, programming, and accountability.

Getting agreement on the SDGs was a huge success. But without taking advantage of the power of data we will not make enough progress to be able to declare victory. This room is full of people who are unwilling to accept that. And I’m one of them.

Now, data alone will not change women’s lives. Creating a gender data revolution is not a cure-all. It is just the foundational part of the work, and how we’re going to be accountable to the women we serve and support. All the best data in the world won’t do us much good if it sits on a shelf collecting dust. It won’t do us much good unless it is used to influence decision-making and accountability. And it won’t do us much good unless it gives women and girls access to healthcare, greater decision-making power, and increased economic opportunity. All of this requires patience and persistence. There is a lot of work ahead.

My promise to you is that our foundation will be there every step of the way. I will be there every step of the way. While we may work on varied causes, we are united by a single, passionate belief: empowered women and girls transform societies. Just look at Neelam. When I asked her what she plans to do next, she said: “Next? I’ve done nothing yet! I will keep fighting for women until I die.” Neelam is living proof that women deliver. And – together - we can build a world where all lives truly have equal value.


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