Over 1,000 people gathered in Johannesburg to witness American philanthropist Melinda Gates in conversation with South African journalist Redi Tlhabi about Gates’ book, The Moment of Lift.
The event, in partnership with Pan Macmillan and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, was held on Oct. 29 at the Fox Junction in Johannesburg — to explore the issues holding women back globally, and how we can all lift each other to achieve gender equality.
Starting the programme was Nikiwe Bikitsha, a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, who welcomed everyone in attendance — including world-renowned advocates such as Mozambican politician and humanitarian Graça Machel; South African founder of the Women’s Development Bank, Zanele Mbeki; trustees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and members of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Given that 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the event was held as part of a series of engagements designed to celebrate the Foundation's work over the past two decades, Bikitsha told the crowd.
She then welcomed the Roedean School Choir and the Wits Choir, from Wits University, who both performed two songs each.
But it was a song by the Wits Choir, called Ntathe (meaning father), that set the tone for the evening: the song is about a woman who is described as “problematic” because she is never home.
Tlhabi, however, commended the woman in the song as being a model of empowerment, for being in control of her time and deciding “where she wants to be and when.”
Unlike this woman, however, many women around the world — and especially on the African continent — have little control or agency over their own bodies.
These are the women that Melinda Gates says inspired her to finally write the book, after 20 years of working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The stories they’ve shared with me call me to the work that I do,” she told the audience.
Gates added that when the #MeToo movement went viral in Oct. 2017, she felt that it was the right time to share these stories.
“It was this moment in time that we had and we needed to make sure that the window stayed wide open, and we used it to really create change,” she continued.
In her book, Gates speaks about how she had previously been reluctant to fully embrace her activism, but how her activism journey was inspired by the need she felt to be a role model for her children — showing them how to use their voices to drive social change.
When asked about how she deals with heartbreaking situations when she visits different places around the world — especially in countries where governments and community leaders aren’t willing to support the fight for equality — Gates said she takes all the anger and heartbreak as part of the journey and doesn’t let it deter her.
“It is important that after processing that anger, I go back home and ask myself what the role of the Foundation is and how we can help,” she said.
Gates shared with the Johannesburg audience the story of a little girl called Grace, who she had met in Tanzania.
Grace and her twin brother are the middle of six children, she said. Her parents were worried that Grace wasn’t doing as well as her twin brother in school and they were struggling to understand why.
But as Gates spent more time with the family and observed their daily life, she continued, she noticed that Grace was always doing the household chores. At night while her brother studied, Grace was in the kitchen washing the dishes and cleaning up.
This brought Tlhabi to question her own childhood. “Could I have gone further if I wasn’t burdened with household chores?” she wondered aloud.
"Now that I'm seen as a leader, I have to yield my power to other women. We all have to look at how we use the power we have."@melindagates on leadership#MomentofLift— Pan Macmillan SA (@PanMacmillanSA) October 29, 2019
Gates told the audience that she strongly believes that unpaid labour starting at a young age pushes girls to drop out of school because of the pressure it puts on them.
“Our economies are built on the backs of women’s unpaid labour,” she said.
According to Gates, women globally lose up to seven years of their lives to unpaid labour.
“If we don’t look at this issue and how we can rebalance it in our homes and redistribute it, we are never going to make sure that women reach their full potential,”she added.
Gates shared how even in her own home, she has found ways to balance the scales. “Nobody leaves the kitchen until mum leaves the kitchen,” she said.
While her work touches on a variety of issues faced by women, Gates is very passionate about access to reproductive healthcare as a tool to empower women economically.
She recalled going to rural areas and disadvantaged communities across Africa initially to help educate communities about vaccines, but she told the audience that the question about contraceptives kept coming up.
A lot of women expressed the need for contraceptives, she continued, because they said it wasn’t feasible to have so many children that they were then unable to take care of by themselves.
Gates highlighted that, contrary to popular belief, no woman is having a child because she sees it as an investment or she has nothing better to do with her time.
Gates emphasised that she wouldn’t have completed her own college degree if she hadn’t had access to contraception.
She also warned that countries that don’t make family planning accessible will become trapped in the cycle of poverty.
“If a woman has a child, after child, after child, she is literally locked into a cycle of poverty because she can't economically afford each of those children and then to be able to keep them healthy and have them educated,” said Gates.
She also called out previous approaches to family planning, saying that they focused on access to contraceptives as a method of population control. Instead, family planning should be seen as tool to enhance gender equality.
“Women need to have the ability to choose when and if they want to reproduce, they need to be educated about their bodies, and what their reproductive rights are,” she highlighted.
Gates went on to explain that throwing money at a problem is not enough, adding that people often make the mistake of assuming they know what the issues are that African countries are facing, and how to fix them.
“You have to listen. Yes talk to the men and everybody else, but you have to get the women alone and really listen to what they need,” she said.
According to Gates, this approach, as well as collaborations with NGOs and grassroots activists, is a more effective way of changing the world and collecting data.
“We need everyone at the edges of the seats asking themselves how they can help,” she said, highlighting that, if we all work together, we can set clear goals and hold ourselves accountable.
In wrapping up the conversation, Tlhabi presented a few questions from the audience.
One audience member asked: “What is the simplest way of bringing change everyday?”
In response, Gates urged everyone to think about themselves as role models. “You role model what you want in the world, through your actions, through what you say to other people, through what you teach your children, through others that you mentor, or maybe others you can help lift up into a job if you have that kind of power.”
Gates ended the conversation by sharing her word of the year, “shine”, which she says is about all of us making sure that everyone in the world can turn on their light and shine. “Because," said Gates, "when you shine, the whole world is illuminated."
Disclosure: Melinda Gates is the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.