Melinda Gates battles to promote contraception in Burkina Faso

By 2050, Africa's population is projected to double to 2.5 billion. By 2100, the UN estimates it could easily top 4 billion. Which is why Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill, is visiting Burkina Faso.

Like other west African nations, the landlocked country has a rapidly growing population and Gates is on a mission to promote and normalise contraception in a society where condoms, the pill and other methods, are often unavailable or frowned upon.

“If you don’t give women access to contraceptives you are locking them into a cycle of poverty,” Gates said in an interview with AFP.

“When women have one child after another then they can’t feed the kids properly so they don’t grow properly and then the family don’t have the resources… to then educate their kids.”

Gates’ argument is simple. In a country like Burkina Faso, with a population of nearly 20 million growing 3 percent a year, contraception is a tool to not only cut birth rates, but also improve health, education and business opportunities for all.

Family planning will, in effect, make people healthier and wealthier.

“You have to go to religious leaders, traditional leaders, they need to hear it from a trusted community health worker,” Gates implored.

“To be honest we also have to educate their husbands, sometimes even the husbands first and the mother-in-law,” she said, well aware of the myriad challenges to boosting the rate of contraception use in a country ranked amongst the lowest in the world.

– ‘Learning from each other’ –

In Burkina Faso, contraceptives can be hard to access, particularly in remote areas of the country.

Knowledge about what’s available and how to use them is relatively low. And many community leaders are ambivalent or opposed to the benefits of birth control.

The fertility rate in Burkina Faso was 5.71 children per woman in 2017, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The fertility rate in Burkina Faso was 5.71 children per woman in 2017, according to the CIA World Factbook

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a multi-billion dollar charity and one of the most powerful in the world, has earmarked $10 million for contraceptive programs in Burkina Faso to help women plan and space their pregnancies.

Melinda Gates’ trip to the country is, in part, to promote the initiative and to learn about the problems the programme is up against.

The money will boost efforts already promoted by the Ouagadougou Partnership, an alliance of nine Francophone West African countries and several international groups set up in 2011 to expand access to family planning in the region.

Gates lauds the success of the partnership, saying initial targets have already been met and that the nine governments are “learning from each other”.

“You have nine governments in west Africa saying we want to do this and we want to do it well,” she said.

“They see the difference it will make for their country, for women and families in their country, they see the difference it will make for children and they see the difference it will make in their economy.”

The Ouagadougou Partnership now aims to bring family planning to 2.2 million more people across the region by 2020.

For Gates, a former Microsoft employee who ended up marrying her boss in 1994, it has been a long journey from Texan business executive to international philanthropist highflyer.

Now used to bending the ear of presidents and billionaire friends to support anti-poverty initiatives or to combat diseases such as HIV and cholera, the Gates foundation has pledged hundreds of millions to changing the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.

While in Burkina Faso, Gates also announced a $34 million investment in nutritional programmes, to teach young mothers to breastfeed their children until the age of six months, and healthier eating in general.

“If you care about the children in your country and you want them to reach their full potential, they need to be fed properly,” she said.

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