Opinion | Melinda French Gates’s Philanthropy Will Include Abortion Rights

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Many years ago, I received this piece of advice: “Set your own agenda, or someone else will set it for you.” I’ve carried those words with me ever since.

That’s why, next week, I will leave the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, of which I was a co-founder almost 25 years ago, to open a new chapter in my philanthropy. To begin, I am announcing $1 billion in new spending over the next two years for people and organizations working on behalf of women and families around the world, including on reproductive rights in the United States.

In nearly 20 years as an advocate for women and girls, I have learned that there will always be people who say it’s not the right time to talk about gender equality. Not if you want to be relevant. Not if you want to be effective with world leaders (most of them men). The second the global agenda gets crowded, women and girls fall off.

It’s frustrating and shortsighted. Decades of research on economics, well-being and governance make it clear that investing in women and girls benefits everyone. We know that economies with women’s full participation have more room to grow. That women’s political participation is associated with decreased corruption. That peace agreements are more durable when women are involved in writing them. That reducing the time women spend in poor health could add as much as $1 trillion to the global economy by 2040.

And yet, around the world, women are seeing a tremendous upsurge in political violence and other threats to their safety, in conflict zones where rape is used as a tool of war, in Afghanistan where the Taliban takeover has erased 20 years of progress for women and girls, in many low-income countries where the number of acutely malnourished pregnant and breastfeeding women is soaring.

In the United States, maternal mortality rates continue to be unconscionable, with Black and Native American mothers at highest risk. Women in 14 states have lost the right to terminate a pregnancy under almost any circumstances. We remain the only advanced economy without any form of national paid family leave. And the number of teenage girls experiencing suicidal thoughts and persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness is at a decade high.

Despite the pressing need, only about 2 percent of charitable giving in the United States goes to organizations focused on women and girls, and only about half a percentage point goes to organizations focused on women of color specifically.

When we allow this cause to go so chronically underfunded, we all pay the cost. As shocking as it is to contemplate, my 1-year-old granddaughter may grow up with fewer rights than I had.

Over the past few weeks, as part of the $1 billion in new funding I’m committing to these efforts, I have begun directing new grants through my organization, Pivotal, to groups working in the United States to protect the rights of women and advance their power and influence. These include the National Women’s Law Center, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

While I have long focused on improving contraceptive access overseas, in the post-Dobbs era, I now feel compelled to support reproductive rights here at home. For too long, a lack of money has forced organizations fighting for women’s rights into a defensive posture while the enemies of progress play offense. I want to help even the match.

I’m also experimenting with novel tactics to bring a wider range of perspectives into philanthropy. Recently, I offered 12 people whose work I admire their own $20 million grant-making fund to distribute as he or she sees fit. That group — which includes the former prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, the athlete and maternal-health advocate Allyson Felix, and an Afghan champion of girls’ education, Shabana Basij-Rasikh — represents a wide range of expertise and experience. I’m eager to see the landscape of funding opportunities through their eyes, and the results their approaches unlock.

In the fall, I will introduce a $250 million initiative focused on improving the mental and physical health of women and girls globally. By issuing an open call to grass-roots organizations beyond the reach of major funders, I hope to lift up groups with personal connections to the issues they work on. People on the front lines should get the attention and investment they deserve, including from me.

As a young woman, I could never have imagined that one day I would be part of an effort like this. Because I have been given this extraordinary opportunity, I am determined to do everything I can to seize it and to set an agenda that helps other women and girls set theirs, too.

Melinda French Gates is a philanthropist and the founder of Pivotal, a charitable, investment and advocacy organization.

Source photographs by Bryan Bedder, filipfoto, and Westend61, via Getty Images.

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