Melinda Gates spoke to TIME about her priorities for the U.N. General Assembly, the need for global gender equality for women and girls, and how best to address the refugee crisis and Zika outbreak.
What are your top priorities at the U.N. General Assembly this year?
Last year was a huge, momentous time at UNGA. The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) got passed, after all the member nations shaped them and crafted them. To me, this year is really about rolling up our sleeves and saying: “What is it that we need to do? What can we actually get done in health and in issues of gender and equity and in issues around the world so that we can further everything that was set in that agenda?”
We want the world to get better for people; it has been, thank goodness, because of the MDGs (Millennial Development Goals). So much progress has been made because they were a roadmap for the world. We cut maternal mortality in half; we cut childhood mortality in half. Now I’m interested in saying: “With these SDGs, what is it that we can actually accomplish and how do we set about doing that work?” I’ll be talking about the leadership that I’m seeing around those, the need for data, and the importance of the gender and health pieces.
Is there one issue in particular you think should be an immediate priority?
Collecting data is an immediate priority, because if we’re going to act, we actually have to have good baseline data on where we are. Eighty percent of the SDGs don’t have good measurement data, and I know the difference data makes—just take one area, family planning or immunizations. A lot of the reasons we don’t have good data particularly around the gender goals is because we haven’t collected it. And so I’m very interested in us as a community talking about: how do we collect the data, work on it all the way through to all the different countries, and then how do we act on it?
Donald Trump outlined his child-care policy Tuesday, and Hillary Clinton has been promoting her plan for months. What do you think needs to be done to improve family and child-care policies here in the U.S.?
I would be very enthused to see the U.S.—at the federal level, state level and private companies—push forward on family leave. We have one of the worst policies in the world for women if she wants to take leave—maternity leave is just one example; it’s unpaid at the federal level. And to me, if we’re saying we’re one of the greatest societies on Earth, if you look at our other OECD member countries, they have much more generous full family leave policies, that let you take off at the time that a child is born or if you have a senior who is elderly and needs care. Whether you’re a man or a woman, you should be able to get paid leave. I really want to see that come forward in the United States. And I think it will have a huge benefit, not just for moms and dads, but we know from research that it benefits children as well.
What can we do to address gender-related violence?
Just to be clear, it’s not something our foundation specifically works on, but I will say this: As we are collecting data in the family-planning arena, or in maternal or child services, for instances, in a lot of countries, women are reporting it to us. So we are starting to collect some of that data. What I’d like to see around the world happen is that countries collect their own data—real data about gender-based violence, and what’s really going on in homes and in the workforce—and report on it and be transparent about it, because that’s how you bring it to the forefront and begin to work on it.
Mexico did a lot of work in the last 20 years and made quite a bit of progress, and I think there is a whole host of countries we could look to on the transparency front to actually make progress. That’s what I’d like to see on a global community level.
What more can be done to address the refugee crisis, and specifically female refugees?
Forced migration and the refugee situation will be top of mind at the UNGA events. And I think we need to talk about the gendered pieces of it that need to be looked at. We’re hearing about violent stories for women—as they’re moving toward the camps, when they’re in the camps. If you go visit one of those camps, a young girl’s chance of being educated compared to a young boy significantly diminishes, because her parents, rightfully so, don’t want to let her out of their tent or their little hut that they’re in.
You’ve got to get good clean safe toilets into refugee camps—we’re actually involved in some of that work, and it makes a huge difference not just for boys but also for girls and especially girls going through menstruation. Another issue is assets—making sure that both men and women have access to financial services. They have economic needs—they have a chance of moving out of that camp. But you have to make sure those services reach both men and women equally. And so I think there will be some good work that will go on around those issues.
As particularly Europe and the U.S. talk about forced migration at UNGA, I hope the other thing that is at the top of the agenda is: we have to invest in these countries. We have to invest in their primary health-care systems. We have to invest in economic opportunity for people. That means getting a good income off your farm—there are things we can do about that. There are things we can do about financial services in these countries. We also don’t want people to end up on the high seas, a tragedy that many people are willing to endure because the economic situation is so tough in their own country. We need to address that. To me, that’s the more upstream piece of this. I want to make sure that stays on the world’s agenda.
Why is equal access to education for girls and boys so important, and how do we get there?
With the MDGs, one of the big accomplishments with education was that we essentially got boys and girls parity at the primary school level. Now we need to focus on the secondary school level, making sure girls stay in secondary school because they’ll often enter it and then drop out, for lots of reasons—sometimes there’s not a toilet, sometimes they’re married off, sometimes she’s labor on a farm. So we need to make sure that girls that get up and into secondary schools, and that they’re able to persist, and that secondary schools have equality for both boys and girls. That’s the big piece of work that has to happen in education.
For girls, if they can persist in a high-quality education environment, you want to talk about unlocking everything for her? It affects everything: it affects her health, it affects her children’s health, it affects how she educates her own children and it affects how she gets economic means in her hands. So that is one of the enormous levers—girls’ secondary education.
What should be done on Zika?
There are two things we need to address global diseases. Routine immunization—that is the basic package of immunizations that we give our kids in the U.S. They are fundamental. If kids are routinely immunized, your chance of getting these outbreaks goes down significantly. The second is these primary healthcare systems—these little place, sometimes a one-room place, where a mom or dad shows up with her sick child or when they’re sick. Investing in those primary health-care centers is vitally important. When you look at what happened with Ebola, the reason we didn’t get a gigantic outbreak of Ebola in Nigeria, even though it showed up in Nigeria, was that the place where it showed up we had a good, functioning primary care system. And to be frank, some of the polio response people converted their polio response to emergency relief. The countries that had very fragile primary-care systems, that’s where it broke out en masse, and you saw what it took to clean up. So investing in routine immunization and investing in primary health care—those are two just fundamental building blocks to help us with diseases around the world.
Are there any examples of countries offering leadership on these issues?
I’m incredibly hopeful with the leadership out of places like Ethiopia and Rwanda. In the Northern countries, Germany’s leadership on the refugee crisis has been incredibly admirable. The U.K. government’s commitment to maintain 0.7% of GNI toward development has shown incredibly great leadership, and it’s exactly what we need to see.
What else are you looking forward to at UNGA?
For me, it’s always a great chance to touch base with partners and to see world leaders come together. The U.N. is an institution that has been together a long time. It’s going to be the last time that Ban Ki-moon is Secretary-General. And there will be some other transitioning leaders, including Obama.
To me, when you see an institution that is functioning well, it gives you a lot of hope for the world. Every time this comes up each year, it’s a time to both look back and look forward. I look back at the progress we’ve made. Despite things going on, tragedies around the world, we’ve made huge progress. And I’m also very hopeful because I see really good leadership transitions around the world. For me, it’s always a great marker in time. And the fact that we can highlight health is a great thing, because the U.N. could focus just on political machinations around the world, but they don’t. They’re focused on health and the health of the poorest around the world, and that’s going to get us stability in the world.