Fresh Takes

The powerful thing that happens when you ask a woman to share her story

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2 min read
Illustration from video about asking women their stories

I t’s one thing to read a statistic about the tens of thousands of children who die each year of diarrhea. It’s another thing entirely to sit down with a group of women in a rural village and hear from one mother after another about what it was like to lose a child to diarrheal disease.

In the nearly two decades since we started our foundation, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that behind every statistic is a story.

Data plays a critical role in driving progress. It helps foundations like ours set priorities, measure results, and learn from our mistakes. (That’s why we invest so heavily in collecting data and in closing data gaps where they exist.)

But it takes more than numbers to understand the world around us. We also need qualitative data—a very dry term for the very human act of asking people about their lives.

In 2016, on a trip to one of the most impoverished parts of Nairobi, I met a data collector named Christine who goes door-to-door in her community gathering data on the women who live there. Christine told me that many of the women she meets through her work have never been asked questions about themselves before. For most of history, the voices of the world’s poorest, most marginalized women have gone ignored.

But something powerful happens when you ask a woman to tell her story. When Christine knocks on a woman’s door and explains that she’s there to learn more about her, it tells that woman that she matters—and that the world cares about her life.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about Christine and the women whose lives she has touched. I’m grateful to her for the reminder that sometimes, the most forceful statement of support we can make for a woman is the one we make by listening.

The powerful thing that happens when you ask a woman to share her story

I’d love to hear about the stories that have impacted your life. What’s a story that changed the way you think about the world?

Seraphine Kaminsa
My father told me when I was going to a boarding school as a young 12 year old that I will find disparities in life and there would be girls from richer homes than me and some would be less privileged. My focus would be to be excellent in my own way... and I kept those words of wisdom in my life’s paths
Lakhumang Choutang
I m from rural area of Arunachal Pradesh in India . My mother, an Iron lady of 1920s is mother of 9 children but could save only 6.Now,the question which keep bombarding in my mind is why 9 children? Growing up I asked my 87 yrs Iron lady . "No guarantee of life" was her reply. Wonder how our mothers brought us up amidst all the odds those days with no medical facilities. Fighting for survival of her own life and their children. Salute to all!!
Diman Zad Tootaghaj
When I was 6 years old I was waiting for my mom to come back from work. Then Mr."X",our neighbor told me:"Your mom should be spending more time with you than working!" I didn't like him because I was always proud of my working mom 28years later, working in a research lab with my little daughter in my belly and nobody knows about my pregnancy I still feel bad of being judged as a mom. But with my little daughter I'm not the only women in the room

Now tell me. What’s a story from your life that you want others to know?

Seraphine Kaminsa
Don’t let the world define you as a woman. As a black woman in Africa, I saw many labels including being call the following:- too young to lead a big global project when I was in my thirties; too foreign to be part of another countries advisory team to their Ministry of Health, and many more.... I believe we can defy the labels put on us when we know our potential and focus on a personal goal; I have defied these labels and a few more.

Posted: March 8, 2019
Edition: Forward