As co-chair of the Gates Foundation, I have spent a lot of time over the past 15 years travelling in developing countries to learn what life is like for women and girls living in some of the poorest communities in the world.
I have seen teenage mothers with broken bodies because they had one baby after another. I have heard women repeatedly describe their desperate struggle to get contraceptives. I carry each of their voices with me, and their determination is what fuels my passion for women’s and children’s health—and for universal access to contraceptives in particular.
I know – because of reams of data, because of my own history, and because women tell me constantly – that having the power to decide when to have children gives women the ability to improve the future and makes them better able to realize the big dreams that all mothers have for their children.
However, my support for family planning programs collides with my deep Catholic faith. My Catholic upbringing has always been an important part of who I am and a driving force behind my work at the Gates Foundation. It is the source of my strong belief in social justice—and of the style of intellectual inquiry I use to shape the foundation’s strategies.
I spent a lot of time wrestling with my feelings. Many people I love and respect – friends, former teachers, members of my community – have different views about family planning. My great-aunt, the woman who taught me to read when I was a little girl, was a nun; I didn’t want to stir up controversy and upset people I care about by speaking out.
In the end, though, I made the decision to raise my voice, because I believe in so doing I am amplifying the voices of women from around the world. These women want to use contraceptives because they want to be better educated and healthier, both physically and economically. We can help them by giving them access to these lifesaving tools.
Yes, it was hard for me to take the risk of being vocal on this issue. But the women I’ve met in places like Kenya, Bangladesh, Senegal, and India take much greater risks every day when they fight to give themselves and their children a better life.
The risks we all take for the sake of things we believe in will pay off in the form of an improved world for future generations.