14/02/2017 20:00 SAST | Updated 14/02/2017 21:07 SAST

Bill Gates: Poverty Is Sexist

"The male dominance in the poorest societies is mind-blowing."

Ruben Sprich / Reuters
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 19, 2017.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released their annual letter on Tuesday. The missive was released in the form of an open letter to the world's second richest man, Warren Buffet, who has pledged much of his fortune to the foundation in a series of annual donations that comprise nearly half the resources of the foundation.

The focus of this year's letter was on children, and everything the foundation has been doing to ensure the future and well-being of children across the globe, particularly in some of the poorest areas where children's health and their prospects are most severely affected.

"If we could show you only one number that proves how life has changed for the poorest, it would be 122 million — the number of children's lives saved since 1990."

— Bill Gates

One of the sections in the letter quotes Bill Gates as saying that poverty is sexist. "The poorer the society, the less power women have. Men decide if a woman is allowed to go outside, talk to other women, earn income. Men decide if it's acceptable to strike a woman. The male dominance in the poorest societies is mind-blowing."

Read the rest of the excerpt below, including comments from Melinda Gates.

Melinda: It's also crippling. Limiting women's power keeps everyone poor. Fortunately, as a society becomes better off, a woman's position in that society improves. But what good is that for a young woman in a poor country who doesn't want to wait? How can she get more power now?

Bill: Melinda and I have seen over and over again that social change comes when people start talking to each other—and that's the magic of women's groups. If you go out in the village, you're rarely going to find a men's group where they all share information. You'll find a big man of the village, and the key aides to the big man, and people who work for the key aides. That hierarchy stifles conversation. It keeps people from talking about what matters. Women's groups don't get as caught up in that, so they're better at spreading information and driving change.

Melinda: Right now approximately 75 million women are involved in self-help groups in India alone. We want to drive that number higher. The groups might form to help women get loans or share health practices, but after things get started, the women take it in the direction they want to go. That is empowerment!

Bill: The most touching thing we've ever done was to help create community groups in India where sex workers had a place to go and talk about HIV prevention. We did it so they could help each other insist on condom use from their clients. But our vision was way too narrow. What the groups did from a human point of view for those women was phenomenal, independent of HIV prevention.

Melinda: One of the first things the groups did was ease stigma. These women were excluded by everyone except each other and softening the stigma started the healing. That's why when Bill told me a few years ago that he had scheduled a meeting with a group of prostitutes, I was proud of him. I had done the same. I never imagined, as a Catholic school girl growing up in conservative Dallas, Texas, that I would ever have a meeting with sex workers and come away admiring them. But I did.


Bill: Warren, if Melinda and I could take you anywhere in the world so you could see your investment at work, we probably would take you to meet sex workers. I met with a group in Bangalore, and when they talked about their lives, they had me in tears. One woman told us she turned to sex work after her husband left her — it was the only way to feed her children.When people in the community found out, they forced her daughter out of school, which made the girl turn against her mother and threaten to commit suicide.

That mother faced the scorn of society, the resentment of her daughter, the risks of sex work, and the humiliation of going to the hospital for an HIV test and finding that no one would look at her, touch her, or talk to her. Yet there she was, telling me her story with dignity. The women who emerged as leaders in that community were just tough as hell, and all the women benefited from that.

Melinda: These communities expand their mission to meet the needs of their members. They do everything for each other. They set up speed-dial networks to respond to violent attacks. They set up systems to encourage savings. They use financial services that help some of them start new businesses and get out of sex work.

Bill: There are huge benefits that come from these women getting together and supporting each other. And the original purpose — preventing HIV — was a phenomenal success. It's well documented that the decision of India's sex workers to insist on condom use from their clients kept HIV from breaking into the general population. The empowerment of these women benefited everyone.

Melinda: That's why a big part of our work in global health is including the excluded — going to the margins of society and trying to bring everybody back in. For us, "All lives have equal value" is not just a principle; it's a strategy. You can create all kinds of new tools, but if you're not moving toward equality, you're not really changing the world. You're just rearranging it.

Bill: When women have the same opportunities as men, families and societies thrive. Obviously, gender equity unleashes women's potential, but it also unleashes men's potential. It frees them to work as partners with women, so they can get the benefits of a woman's intelligence, toughness, and creativity instead of wasting their energy trying to suppress those gifts.