Unlocking the Potential of Women and Girls
Majlis of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
April 13, 2016
Your Highness, for your partnership and your friendship. Your leadership and generosity are an example to the world. I’m honored to be here in Abu Dhabi at Your Highness’s majlis. Today, I’d like to talk about something that is important to the United Arab Emirates, important to the foundation, and important to me personally: unlocking the potential of women and girls everywhere.
I grew up in Texas in the 1970s. I didn’t know many women who worked outside the home or who had careers like the one I imagined for myself. But I did have a mother who told me I could be anything or anyone… and a father who insisted that the fact I was a girl should never put a limit on my dreams. He was the one who bought me my first computer and helped ignite my passion for computer science.
Both my parents strongly believed that all four of their kids should go to college. They knew it wouldn’t be easy to pay four tuitions on my dad’s engineering salary, so they started a small real estate company on the side to help them save up a college fund.
And even after my parents sacrificed so much for me, they still told me that they would support any decision I made with my life… whether I wanted to have a career or stay home with my children.
Ultimately, I did both. I worked for a decade as a software executive. Then, after I was married, I stayed home with my three children, although I knew I wanted to go back to work eventually. And then, in 2000, when Bill and I launched our foundation, I started a new career in global health and development.
Bill and I always knew we wanted to give the wealth from Microsoft’s success back to society. We both came from households that placed a strong emphasis on social justice. I went to a Catholic school, where we learned that faith starts with serving others. So even before we were married, we started talking about how we might give back.
We got the idea for our foundation during our first trip to Africa, which we took shortly before our wedding. It was our first sustained look at extreme poverty—and the beginning of our education about the challenges facing the world’s poorest people.
In the fifteen years since we opened our foundation, we have learned a lot—including that to be effective philanthropists, we have to first form effective partnerships. Our foundation’s resources alone aren’t nearly enough to take on global challenges as big as poverty and disease. So every single thing we do is in partnership with others.
Our relationship with the UAE is one of the best examples of this. We’ve worked closely with the UAE to get lifesaving vaccines to more children around the world and in our efforts to eradicate polio once and for all. We both agree that vaccines are one of the most effective tools to ensure the health of the next generation. That’s why, in 2011, we came together in a $100 million joint effort to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization—now known as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance—to increase vaccine coverage in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
There is no greater testament to this partnership than the fact that there are thousands of children alive today whose lives might otherwise have been lost.
We’ve also worked together toward eradicating polio—an ambitious but realistic goal that would save the world as much as 50 billion dollars and prevent immeasurable suffering. In this effort, your unique access and special position in the region—combined with your extraordinary generosity—have been a tremendous asset to the world… and especially to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries where polio remains endemic.
In 2013, we co-hosted a Global Vaccine Summit here in Abu Dhabi, where global donors pledged $4 billion toward polio eradication, including Your Highness’s $120 million pledge. From the public diplomacy drive you’ve launched to keep the world’s attention on the disease… to the documentary film you produced to get people informed… to your successful efforts to reach Pakistani children in even the country’s most volatile areas, your partnership in fighting this disease has been invaluable.
In 1988, there were over 350,000 cases of polio across more than 125 countries. Last year, there were only 74 cases in just these last two countries.
But as the recent outbreak in Syria reminded us, as long as there is polio anywhere, the whole world is at risk. We cannot stop until we get to zero. And thanks in no small part to the UAE’s leadership, we believe we are only a few years away from the last case of polio.
Bill and I choose to do this work because we are optimists. We believe that progress is possible because we see it happening already. We know from the data that, around the world, more children are living past their fifth birthdays than ever before. More women and newborns are surviving pregnancy and delivery. Young children are sick less often. Adolescents are in school more often. Even in the world’s poorest places, life is steadily getting better. But we also know that none of this progress happened on its own. The world is moving in the right direction because women and girls are pushing it that way.
Children are living longer because their mothers are demanding they receive vaccines and better nutrition. Infant and maternal mortality is falling because mothers and midwives are working together to embrace interventions that make childbirth safer and infants’ first days less risky—like better umbilical cord care, optimal breastfeeding practices, and skin-to-skin contact to keep newborns warm.
More children are in school because women are spending the majority of each dollar they make on school fees and other investments in their families. When we invest in women—the most critical and under-resourced asset in the world—we unlock a better future not only for women themselves, but also for the next generation. To activate women’s potential as agents of change and position them to break the cycle of poverty, we need to ensure they have three fundamental things: access to healthcare, decision-making power, and economic opportunity.
When we recognize the pivotal role women play in their households and communities and direct resources and programs toward them, they become some of development’s strongest allies. Let me give you one example.
When I was in Malawi last June, I met a woman named Patricia who lives about two hours outside the capital city of Lilongwe. Like most women in her village, Patricia is a farmer. But she’s also an entrepreneur. Last year, one of our partner organizations, CARE, asked Patricia if she would be interested in purchasing a special strain of groundnut seeds—a staple crop in that area—that had been bred to resist pests and disease. These special seeds are great for increasing farmers’ yields—but they’re hard to obtain because they’re difficult to mass produce. CARE recognized that if they enlisted farmers like Patricia to help produce and harvest more of these seeds right in their own fields, it would benefit those individual women and benefit the community.
In only one planting season, Patricia quadrupled her yield. Now, she can finally see herself on a pathway out of poverty. Patricia and her husband make decisions about the family budget together, so she has some say in what she’ll do with this extra income. She told me she plans to use it on her kids’ school fees. And by helping mass produce these seeds so more farmers like her can buy them, she’s helping other women lift themselves and their families out of poverty, too.
We know that when we invest in women like Patricia, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else. So here are three key areas where we should target those investments.
First, access to healthcare. When a woman’s health improves, her life improves by every measure. A study published in The Lancet found that every dollar invested in health returns at least $9 to low- and middle-income countries as healthier children and adults learn and work more productively. For women and girls, that means better care during pregnancy and delivery, better nutrition, and the tools and services to help them plan and space their pregnancies.
Second, women need decision-making power in their families. The data tells us women invest the majority of their income back into their families. And when a woman has a say in her family’s budget, she tends to prioritize things like healthcare, education, and nutrition—all the building blocks of a healthy society. Patricia had a say in her family’s budget because she and her husband had been to CARE workshops aimed at changing cultural norms to give women more of a voice in their lives. Let’s make sure more women have that chance.
Third, economic opportunity. When a woman has the opportunity to work outside the home—and access to financial services so she can participate in the formal economy—families break the cycle of poverty and national GDPs rise. Thanks to Sheikh Zayed and Sheikha Fatima’s vision, the UAE has seen firsthand what happens when a country prioritizes women and girls.
This room is filled with women who are helping to shape the UAE’s future. Women are represented at the highest levels of your government. Five of the eight recently appointed ministers in your federal government are women, and the Gender Balance Council will continue to make inclusion a priority. Women comprise half of the team at the UAE Space Center. And that is a wonderful thing. Not only for the UAE… but for everyone. The Arab world looks to the UAE. Countries everywhere look to the UAE.
You have an important voice in the global conversation and an important role on the global stage. You have the power to stand behind the women who are pushing the world in the right direction—and help them push it even further. I hope there will be many chances for us to work together toward this goal.
Just as my father and mother championed me… and just as Sheikh Zayed, Sheikha Fatima and Your Highness have championed women and girls in the UAE and beyond… we can all choose to be champions for women and girls everywhere. Progress is possible. And with committed leaders and dedicated partners, the possible becomes achievable. I look around this room, and I see great leaders and great partners. Together, I know we can make great progress. Thank you.