Fresh Takes

Three stories that explain why I am relentlessly, passionately, and impatiently optimistic

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Women wearing a pink headdress sitting on the roots of a tree.

A fter a decade and a half of working on the issues facing the world’s poorest people, I like to call myself an impatient optimist. When I visited rural India last month, I was reminded of all the reasons why.

I got impatient for progress to move faster when I saw a toddler suffering from malnutrition, his little belly painfully swollen and distended — and when I met a six-year-old whose prospect of living a healthy and productive life is much grimmer than her twin brother’s, simply because she was born a girl.

Melinda Gates sitting in a group circle with women and girls from the Prerna School
It’s one thing to read about child mortality in a U.N. report. It’s something completely different to meet the mothers forced to bear its devastating realities.
I got impatient for progress when a group of mothers sitting with me on mats under a shady tree told me that almost every single one of them has lost a child to disease. It’s one thing to read about child mortality in a U.N. report. It’s something completely different to meet the mothers forced to bear its devastating realities.

All of these moments were wrenching reminders that we — the whole world — still have much work to do.

But, because I’m an optimist, I also get impatient any time the world’s poorest places are portrayed as communities where the weight of disease and poverty is so heavy that it crushes all human potential and crowds out any chance of progress. That is simply not true.

When we look at the data, we see that, across a whole host of metrics, India is moving in the right direction. More children than ever before are surviving to their fifth birthday. More women are surviving childbirth, and more infants are surviving their first, riskiest days. Last year, India was certified polio-free, a stunning feat made possible by healthcare workers who are bringing modern medicine to even India’s poorest, most remote areas.

None of this has happened by accident. India is moving in the right direction in large part because women and girls — and the men who support them — are pushing it that way.

Decades of research makes clear that women and girls are a crucial part of the development equation. When women and girls are empowered and can act in their own best interests, they are drivers of development who can fast-track progress for everyone. They are the ones who prioritize education, healthcare, and nutrition — all the building blocks of healthy societies. And they are the ones working on the front lines to lift themselves and their families out of extreme poverty, improve the health of their communities, and create a more prosperous future. We’ve seen again and again that when you invest in women and girls, you invest in the people who invest in everyone else.

So here, in three stories, is a case for why I left India even more convinced that investing in women and girls is the key to accelerating progress — and why I left India more optimistic than ever.

Melinda Gates speaks with Sister Sudha at Prerna School
In Bihar, I visited a school called Prerna, founded by an incredible woman named Sister Sudha. Prerna is a Hindi word that means “inspiration” — and it only takes about five minutes on campus to realize the name is an apt one!

Most of the students at Prerna come from the marginalized Mushahar community, which is considered the very lowest rung of the caste system. All their lives, these girls have been taught that they are untouchable, that their lives have no value, and that they should expect nothing for themselves.

But at Prerna, Sister Sudha teaches these girls that each one of them is precious and that all of them are filled with potential and possibility. That’s why, in addition to learning the usual subjects — like reading, writing, and (my personal favorite) computers — Prerna students also study activities like drumming and karate. Sister Sudha explained to me that the curriculum is designed to help girls see themselves as having power.

Despite the fact that so many of them come from difficult backgrounds, the girls I met at Prerna were brimming with confidence in themselves and optimism about their futures. They are proud to wear their uniform of blue salwar kameez, which they say makes them feel like “girls who study.” When I peeked into their classrooms, they were excited to try out their English on me. (“How are you feeling today?” was a question I got a lot.)
Melinda Gates standing and talking to a group of girls at Prerna School
I spoke to a few girls about their plans after graduation. Some girls mentioned wanting to work for the government or a bank, but the overwhelming majority said they plan to serve their communities and bring opportunity to other children in their villages. They’re even thinking about what their own daughters’ lives will be like — and many of them told me they want to have only two children, so they will be sure they can afford to send them to school. As one girl put it, her daughter needs to go to school “so she can stand on her own two feet.”

I know that all of these girls are capable of amazing things. The reality, though, is that not all of them will break free from the trap of extreme poverty or manage to avoid being forced into marriage too young, to a man they didn’t choose.

But one thing is clear: no matter where these girls go next, the education they’ve received at Prerna has lit a fire inside them, and their lives will never be the same. The fact they have been taught to expect more for themselves will affect everything from the way they interact with their husbands to the decisions they make about investing in their own children’s futures.
Women wearing a pink headdress sitting on the roots of a tree.
The next story I want to share is about a woman named Sabita Devi.

For most of her adult life, Sabita rarely left home. She spent her days isolated within the four mud walls and low ceiling of her house in rural Jharkhand, a developing state in eastern India. Like many women in the world’s poorest places, she was isolated from society, with few people to talk to or turn to for support. She told me that even in her own village, no one knew her name.

But then, on December 20, 2001 — she can still tell you the exact date — Sabita joined a self-help group.

The theory behind self-help groups is deceptively simple: Bring women together to talk about ways they can improve life for themselves and their families, and it will unlock women’s potential to drive progress for their communities.

For the women in Sabita’s self-help group, the opportunity was transformative. It was their first chance to talk with other women like them about the challenges they have in common. In their weekly meetings, Sabita and her fellow group members started learning about ways to improve their crop yields and increase their incomes.

Once women like Sabita start to see tangible evidence of progress in their own lives — like more food on the table or a surplus to sell at the market — greater financial security becomes the first step on the path to empowerment. It helps them see that a better future is possible for themselves and their families — and their actions can help shape it.

Now, Sabita’s group is tackling other problems, too. When I met them, they told me they had just put in an application for the village’s first toilets. And they’d recently combined forces with the self-help groups in neighboring villages to take on the area’s growing alcohol problem.

Today, Sabita leaves home all the time. Once, no one in her village knew her name. But today, everyone knows her — in her village, in the neighboring villages, and even at the local bank, where she has opened her own bank account.

Now you know her name, too.
Melinda Gates interacting with a woman and her baby with a rural farm in the background.
The last story I want to tell is about a woman named Beronika Herenj. When I stopped by Beronika’s home to see her orchard, I got to meet her daughter-in-law, Kiran, along with Kiran’s daughter, Angel, and see firsthand how much life has changed across the three generations of her family.

Beronika told me that for most of her life, she lived under the constant threat of hunger. Her family’s plot produced only enough food to feed the family for half the year. After they ran out of crops to eat, she and her six sons would survive for months on end on nothing but the jackfruit they picked from the nearby forest. Eventually, the family fell into debt and had to mortgage their land — and their future looked more uncertain than ever.

But then, in 2009, Beronika, too, joined a self-help group. With the group’s support, she began farming new, more lucrative crops like mangoes and watermelons. Today, her family has enough food to eat three meals a day all year long — and a significant surplus to sell.

When Beronika was a young mother, her day-to-day struggles to feed her family were so consuming that it was hard to plan ahead. But now that the family is more secure, they are constantly thinking about the future.

When I asked what they plan to do with the extra income from their harvest, Kiran told me that she will finally be able to afford her dream of going to nursing school. She also told me that even though her daughter Angel is only one and a half — barely even walking and talking — she and her husband have already started picking out primary schools and planning for her education.

There is no way to know exactly what Angel’s life will hold, but there is every reason to believe that Angel will have opportunities that her grandmother and mother never did and a much better chance to rise as high as her potential will take her. Kiran is determined to see that happen — and we should be, too.

The small acts of love and hope that Kiran is performing each day to build a better world for her daughter are so much greater than the sum of their parts. She is part of a bigger, broader march toward progress. Women like her are the ones who are pushing the world in the right direction. And when we stand behind them, we can move it faster and further for everyone.
Two women pouring water over Melinda Gates' hands
I’m grateful to Sudha, Sabita, Beronika, Kiran, and Angel for letting me share their stories. And, above all, I am grateful to them for reminding me through their lives and their work why even when I am impatient, I am always first and foremost an optimist.

Posted: March 5, 2019
Originally Published: May 12, 2015 on Medium