Want to help Africa? Start with women, says Melinda Gates

Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates, speaks during a meeting aimed at drumming up support for women and girls in developing countries on Oct 14, 2014 in Paris. Women are key to boosting economic growth in Africa and the d
Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates, speaks during a meeting aimed at drumming up support for women and girls in developing countries on Oct 14, 2014 in Paris. Women are key to boosting economic growth in Africa and the developing world, Gates said. -- PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Women are key to boosting economic growth in Africa and the developing world, Melinda Gates said on Tuesday, as she stopped off in Paris to press crisis-hit France to keep funding projects for women and girls.

Speaking to AFP, the philanthropist said empowering women is a key focus of the powerful Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in its struggle to help people in developing countries be more autonomous in health, family planning and - crucially - economic decisions.

The reason? Evidence has shown that a woman in Africa, Asia or Latin America is more inclined to save money and plough it back into her family's well-being than a man would be.

"That has an impact on her children's life... as well as the whole community," said Gates, ahead of a public event with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo aimed at drumming up support for women and girls in development.

"If you want to lift up an economy in Africa, you basically start with the women."

Much has been said about the need to improve women's awareness of how to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health - two of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000 - and huge progress has been made on that front.

Maternal deaths have gone down a third in the last 30 years and childhood deaths have been cut in half, said Gates, who started the foundation with her billionaire husband Bill, America's richest man.

Aid groups are also working towards another MDG aimed at promoting gender equality and empowering women, which could in turn help eradicate poverty and hunger.

A 2010-11 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, for instance, found that getting women more involved in agriculture in developing countries could increase output and ultimately help reduce the number of undernourished people by 12 to 17 per cent.

One way to achieve this, Gates said, is to give women seeds to grow cash crops, teaching them how to plant them and how to get the right fertiliser.

"But you need to make sure that she gets her crop to market, so you might have her band together with other women so the women are taking the crop to the market," Gates said.

"Because she'll tell you that once her husband takes it to market, she's less likely to get the cash back in her hand, or if she does it's a renegotiation with him that doesn't always go so well.

"So you can form women's cooperatives."

Women are not only key to economic growth in developing countries, Gates stressed.

"One of the things even the OECD countries are looking at is if you get women's full participation in the economy, we could lift our own GDPs (gross domestic product) by 12 per cent," she said.

"We know it works here, but it absolutely works in Africa."

And it's not just about taking control of finances, but also of family planning, health and education.

Gates said the foundation was funding a project in Tanzania looking into a manufacturing process that uses left-over agricultural products to make cheap sanitary pads for women.

"If you can get menstrual pads out to young women that are inexpensive and from locally-grown products, and a girl has access to that, we know she's more likely to stay in school," Gates said.

Girls often give up education as there are no toilets at their schools or they have to stay home for a whole week every month, she said.

"What we're trying to highlight to the French government is that continuing to invest in women and girls... is really important if we really want to make progress around the world."

The part of the French budget devoted to international aid will fall some 3 per cent next year to €2.8 billion (S$4.5 billion), and then slide further in 2016 and 2017.