Anonymous global health worker: The problem with Melinda Gates’ family planning crusade

*This is a guest post submitted by someone who wishes to remain anonymous because they work in the global health field and could lose their job for voicing these opinions. This post does not necessarily reflect the views of Feministing contributors or editors. 

The press coverage has been glowing: Melinda Gates launches global crusade for contraception; Gates summit aims to fill family planning gap, Melinda Gates takes on the Vatican.

These are just a few of the headlines that appeared following this week’s London Summit on Family Planning.  Sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the UK Government, the Summit aimed—and succeeded—in mobilizing big name funders and governments to invest in expanding contraceptive access in developing countries.

It can’t be denied that throughout the world, millions of women want—yet can’t access- modern contraception methods.  And it’s great that Melinda Gates used her influence and tremendous financial assets to raise the profile of women’s health in the mainstream media and among powerful global health donors.

But the problem is that despite the media’s characterization of her role, Melinda Gates did not start this “crusade” against conservative forces that try to limit women’s access to the basic health services they need.

The UK Guardian wrote on July 11 that “Gates…predicted that women in Africa and Asia would soon be ‘voting with their feet,’ as women in the west have done, and would ignore the church’s ban on artificial birth control.”  In the article, Gates is quotes as saying that “it would have been nice to stay as a private citizen but part of the reason why I’m so public is that it does take a woman to speak out about these issues.”

I couldn’t agree more.  But does it have to be a white woman?

For decades, grassroots women’s organizations throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America have been fighting entrenched cultural norms and dominant religious forces to fight for women’s rights and access to sexual and reproductive health care.  From Nigeria to Mexico, women have been speaking out on these issues and challenging their governments—or “voting with their feet”—often at their own peril.

The problem is that many women don’t have the financial resources Gates does, or the connections or access needed to make their voices heard in large traditional media outlets.  And like so many other well-meaning white people, Gates has not fully grasped the extent that her privilege provides a forum, a forum that is not only out of reach for women in developing countries, but also inaccessible for millions of women in this country who wish that her “crusade” against the Vatican would include advocacy for the abortion rights we’ve worked so hard to secure.

If Gates is, truly, dedicated to giving a “voice to women all over the planet,” then why doesn’t she pass the megaphone?

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