Female empowerment is often seen as a luxury reserved for privileged societies—something no struggling community can think about. After all, we misapprehended women's empowerment as an issue exclusively for women. Yet by making this mistake, struggling communities continue trying to climb out of poverty whilst carrying the deadweight of wasted potential—disenfranchised women.
The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World (Macmillan, 2019) sees Melinda Gates exploring just that. Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charitable organisation, explains that just giving women options can accelerate a community.
As Gates reveals, no country in the last 50 years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives. A study conducted in rural Bangladesh showed that 20 years after contraceptives were made accessible, mothers were healthier, earned higher wages, their families were wealthier, and their children were better nourished and educated. She writes, if they were available to the 200 million women who wanted but could not access them, women dying in childbirth would reduce by a third.
Gates ponders on her luck that her parents' expectations and her own aspirations aligned, writing that this is not the case for many women. Instead, there is a tendency for the "female" label to eclipse women's individual identity and strengths.
We have far outgrown the need to distinguish individual capacity purely by gender yet women are still expected to self-sacrifice for some fictitious "greater good". Gates asserts that this prevents men and women from working productively together.
Here, girls are interchangeable commodities on a factory conveyor belt. This intolerance is a loss, not just for the women it disenfranchises, but also for the men bearing full financial burdens and the society foregoing the talents of half its population.
Melinda Gates stresses that empowerment does not defame women who choose to be traditional homemakers. It only fights against the social intolerance for women who aspire for anything contrary to tradition.
Mothers who dare ask fathers to take on parental responsibilities are vilified as uncaring despite the fact that reducing the mother's parental workload will actually help her family. Gates reveals that when fathers bear at least 40 percent of childcare responsibilities, not only are they at a lower risk of depression and drug abuse, but their children receive higher exam results, have stronger self-esteem and fewer behavioural problems.
Moreover, Gates clarifies that dividing work by gender on the false pretence of "natural abilities" prevents men and women from developing skills in areas outside what is socially expected of them.
Even where women work outside their social expectations, say, in agriculture, they remain under-acknowledged. This costs us. For example, a 2011 UN study revealed that if we provided poor female farmers the same resources and information available to men, their yield would be equal. The impact of this? There would be 100-150 million less undernourished people.
Gates is especially sincere when advocating girls' education, writing that it is a good deed that "never dies". Education values girls beyond their domestic capabilities. It is a powerful incentive for families to invest in their daughters that protects girls from child marriage. To the author, the most effective barrier to child marriage is to entirely remove the idea from the poorest families through education, and empathy. Molly Melching, the founder of a Senegal-based NGO, tells Gates that while outrage can save a few girls, empathy can dismantle the whole system.
Education empowers women, but also raises a country's quality of life. That is, as Gates describes, greater literacy rates, higher wages, faster income, more productive farming, and healthier children. In fact, half of the gains in child survival in the last 20 years is attributable to the higher education levels of mothers.
Rather than shaming and blaming, Gates backs incentivising change. She praises BRAC, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. Instead of vilifying parents hesitant to send their daughters to school, BRAC worked towards a permanent solution that made it impossible for parents to say no—all teachers at BRAC schools were local women and books and materials were free. BRAC's philosophy was embraced by the country, and not even recurrent arson by extremists slowed progress towards girls' education.
Gates also spotlights underprivileged women from rural East African and South Asian villages yet despite her wealth and power, she shows no ignorance. Her words lay testament to her genuine passion in supporting the women she spent decades connecting with through on-the-ground work.
She is proof that even across a great divide, a single thread ties all women together. This is what allows them to connect with each other on a human level. This is what facilitates women supporting one another—what Gates describes as "a moment of lift". And this is how the developing world can reach new heights of progress.
Alifa Monjur is studying commerce and law in Sydney.