Women farmers tend to their crops in Kamuli, Uganda. Photo by: Laura Elizabeth Pohl / Bread for the World / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Monday announced its first-ever gender equality strategy, which will commit $170 million to women’s economic empowerment. Previously, the foundation’s investments in gender-related work focused largely on areas such as family planning and nutrition, as well as financial services for the poor.

“We’re aiming to invest this $170 million over four years to support four critical and integrated pillars on women’s economic empowerment,” said Sarah Hendriks, director of gender equality at the Gates Foundation, who outlined the new strategy, which aims to transform how women participate in economies around the world.

The first area of focus is financial inclusion. “We’re going to work together with partners to ensure women have access to and are able to actively use a digital financial bank account,” Hendriks told Devex.

The second area looks at assets and issues such as land ownership and land tenure security. “We also see this as a really tough space,” Hendriks said. “The more we’ve dug into the data, the more complex the picture has become.” The gender equality team hopes to gain a deeper understanding over the next four years of how assets such as land ownership can play a role in opening up economic opportunities for women, she said.

The third area focuses on opportunity. “Here we’re looking at market connectedness for women and how connecting women to market opportunities can help to increase the actual income that women have in their hands,” Hendriks said, explaining that her team is primarily interested in agricultural products and markets. “So we’re going to be building evidence and engaging in partnerships that help to focus our efforts on some of the most effective interventions that help the poorest women become more fully active in the economy.”

Finally, the foundation will support efforts related to the support and connection of women, in particular through self-help groups. Building on their past investments in self-help groups in India, the gender equality team wants to double down and expand this work. Hendriks, her team, and their partners plan to test and advance new models for these organizations to drive empowerment outcomes for women.

“There’s so much power that’s generated amongst women when they actually come together. It’s also a tremendous platform to actually reach women, with health-based messaging, empowerment-based messaging. And so we believe there’s really an untapped opportunity, particularly in African countries that are poised for this scale but it’s not yet there,” Hendriks said. “So we’d like to explore together with partners — governments, multilateral institutions, as well as NGO partners — how to expand that opportunity and bring it to scale in countries in Africa where there’s a richness of potential there.”

The Gates Foundation is interested not only in scaling the self-help group model in Africa, but also in finding new models that empower adolescent girls and experimenting with the role digital technology might play in enabling women and groups to connect with each other, Hendriks said.

“When we look at overall development work, we see that gender equality or gender inequality and poverty are deeply intertwined together,” Hendriks said. “And this shows up in how women experience poverty in low-income households. It also shows up in how power is brokered in communities. And it also shows up in entrenched and inherent biases in systems and structures that surround women’s lives.”

The $170 million strategy was based not only on research and evidence, but also on feedback from partners at six consultations held in different parts of the world, Hendriks explained. The Gates Foundation has already identified the partners it plans to work with, and will unveil those partnerships at a later date. Meanwhile, as it ramps up its investment in gender equality, it also continues to expand its gender equality team.

Prior to joining the foundation, Hendriks worked as the director of gender equality and social inclusion at Plan International, with major projects including a policy report on the state of the world’s girls, and the development of a $500 million portfolio of innovation initiatives for adolescent girls. She’s also worked with Women and the Law in South Africa Malawi, and as a consultant in areas such as gender-based violence and women’s access to justice for donor agencies in Germany and Canada and multilaterals including the World Bank, and has spent time in Southern and Eastern Africa as well as India.

In a commentary piece, Melinda Gates has called on the foundation and the development sector more broadly to become more intentional about putting women and girls at the center of development work. The foundation hired its first program officer on gender equality in 2008. Four years later, it co-hosted the London Summit on Family Planning together with the United Kingdom’s Department for international Development. In 2015, the Gates Foundation launched a new grand challenge called Putting Women and Girls at the Center of Development, which helped to shape a learning agenda for the foundation and the wider field. More recently, the Gates Foundation made an $80 million commitment at the Women Deliver conference in 2016 to close gender data gaps, and at its Goalkeepers event in New York City last September, it announced an accelerator to support grassroots women’s groups.

“We see success really looking like not just women actively using their own bank account to save money, to make payments, to become active economic actors, but also receiving income in their very own bank account,” Hendriks said.

Read more Devex coverage on the Gates Foundation.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.