Joan Holmes, Microsoft Women's Conference

January 12, 2006


I am thrilled to be with you today.

When you have the opportunity to speak with a new group you do a little research to know with whom you are speaking.

Well, it didn’t take a lot of research to know that you – the women of Microsoft – are among the most healthy, affluent, and educated women in the world.

And you’re a vital part of one of the most cutting-edge, dynamic and influential organizations on our planet.

You are literally shaping the future.

For the last 30 years, I’ve been studying and working on the issue of ending hunger and over that time the world has come to many realizations:

  • The persistence of hunger is not a food issue; there is more than enough food. It is a human issue. What’s lacking is the opportunity for hungry people to end their own hunger.
  • The most recent realization is that women not only lack – but are systematically denied – the opportunity to end their own hunger.

About 10 years ago I fully came to understand what the underlying cause of hunger really is. It is something not at all obvious. But something so built into society and so hidden that it takes a long time just to have the facts of the situation reveal themselves.

What it is – is gender inequality.

I’ve been privileged to spend an enormous amount of time in the developing world working with women: creating leadership workshops for newly elected women leaders in India; working with grassroots women in Bangladesh; creating initiatives to empower African women food farmers; and creating an HIV/AIDS and Gender Inequality workshop for grassroots people in Africa.

And so, when I examined my own purpose in being here today – when I asked the question – what difference will it make for you and me to spend this time together – I realized that my intention and my hope is that you awaken and then deepen your connection to women in the developing world. And that you come to understand how important our solidarity is to their lives, and in that way to the entire world community.


Now, just so we have a basic shared understanding of what’s so in the world, let me give you some facts.

As you may have heard, in September 2005, 191 countries in our international community committed themselves to what are called the Millennium Development Goals – these are the world’s time-bound and quantified targets for addressing the basic issues facing humankind.

I’d like to break these issues down one by one:

  • 1.1 billion of us live in abject poverty – on less than $1 a day.
  • 852 million of us are chronically undernourished, 2 billion lack food security.
  • Twenty-five percent of the people in developing countries do not have access to safe drinking water. Sixty-four percent lack adequate sanitation.
  • 30,000 children under the age of 5 die each day – most in the developing world.
  • There are 121 million children out of school, the majority girls.
  • A woman dies in childbirth every minute. In the industrialized countries one woman in 4,000 dies in childbirth. In Africa, it’s one in 16.
  • We as a humanity face one of the deadliest epidemics in history – HIV/AIDS.
  • More than 25 million people have died.
  • 40 million people are living with it, and more than 13,000 people become infected each and every day.

If we look at these issues carefully, we’ll discover that the underlying condition that gives rise to the vast majority of these problems is gender inequality. These issues are not just gender related – gender inequality is often the root cause of the problem.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said: “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”

So, let’s examine the condition of women and girls in the developing world.

This is what I’ve learned. These are the facts. This is the situation – and it is mind-blowing.

Women and girls

When we talk about poverty – when we talk about people in the throes of hunger – what we are really talking about are women and children.

The vast majority of the world’s poor are women. And, the gap between women and men caught in the cycle of poverty has continued to widen in the past decade.

An estimated 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children.

Two-thirds of the world’s illiterates are female. Of the millions of school age children not in school, the majority are girls.

And today – HIV/AIDS is rapidly becoming a woman’s disease. In several southern African countries, more than three-quarters of all young people living with HIV are women.

There is a direct correlation between women's low status, the violation of their human rights, and HIV transmission.

100 million "missing" women

There is growing recognition that gender discrimination is dehumanizing and holds back the development of society. What we’re not aware of – what we fail to understand – is that gender discrimination, in and of itself, is often fatal.

The cumulative impact of gender bias claims a horrific and incomprehensible number of female lives.

Did you know that 100 million women and girls are “missing”? Missing from the world’s population because of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, malnutrition, abuse and neglect of girl children and women. This is roughly equivalent to all the deaths in all the wars of the 20th century – the most violent century ever. This is a holocaust many times over.

There are regions in India where there are 754 females for every 1000 males, largely due to sex-selective abortion.

Even in New Delhi, the capital city of India, the ratio is 882 females for every 1000 males.

I’ve been to states in India where you take a car from the city to the most remote village – and once you are there you will not find health clinics, adequate sanitation or clean water. What you will find is the latest technology to determine the sex of a fetus.

In our world community, the horrific number of females who die because of gender bias goes largely unnoticed. These women and girls die the same way they lived. Ignored – anonymous – in silence.

We need to tell the truth. We still live on a planet where the majority of women live in countries where women are subjugated, abused and abandoned.

And, here’s the irony. These oppressed, malnourished, and often illiterate women are the key to the future.

They are the key to the end of hunger and abject poverty.

They are the key to healthier societies, to faster economic growth and to greater social justice. Here’s how:

Three distinct ways women make a difference

First, there is an inextricable link between women’s well-being and the overall health of a society.

There is the enormous, yet largely unrecognized and unsupported, contribution of women to the world economy.

And, finally, there is an unparalleled benefit to society when women have voice in decisions that affect their own lives.

Women’s well-being and the overall health of a society

With regard to women’s well-being and the link to the health of a society, let’s look to South Asia.

India and Bangladesh account for roughly a third of the world’s hunger – and their childhood malnutrition rates are among the highest in the world.

One-third of all babies in Bangladesh and one-third of the babies in India are born underweight and malnourished.

India and Bangladesh are countries that have more than enough food – in fact, India has more than 40 million tons of food in storage. So, why are the rates of malnutrition so high?

A landmark UNICEF report concluded that these exceptionally high rates of malnutrition are “rooted deep in the soil of inequality between men and women.”

Let me describe the insidious cycle of malnutrition that persists in rural South Asia.

A baby girl is born underweight and malnourished. She is often nursed less and fed less nutritious food than her brother. She receives little or no health care, and even if she is sent to school, it’s just for two, maybe three years.

She is forced to work – even as a child. Her work burden increases significantly as she gets older – even when she is pregnant. She is married and pregnant when she is young, often just a teenager.

She is underweight and malnourished when she gives birth to her children who are born underweight and malnourished. And the cycle continues.

The contribution of women to the world’s economy

But then look at women’s contribution to the world economy.

In strictly economic terms, women:

  • work two-thirds of the world's working hours
  • but, earn one-tenth of the world's income
  • and they own less than 1% of the world's property.

Women’s work remains largely invisible. It’s not found in official statistics, because it takes place outside the formal economic structure.

However, women’s invisible work as vendors, weavers, potters, laundry workers, manual laborers, and so forth, is valued at one-third of the world’s economic production.

Here’s an example. In India, young girls and women include in their daily work collecting and drying cow dung – which is used primarily as fuel in rural India where 75% of the population lives. Their work saves India at least $10.5 billion dollars a year that would otherwise need to be spent on petroleum. It is estimated that, if women went on strike and no longer collected cow dung, India would be in an economic crisis in less than three weeks.

Rural women are responsible for half of the world's food production. And in most developing countries they produce 60 to 80 percent of the food. This is true in South Asia. And, it is particularly true in Africa.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women food farmers:

  • produce 80 percent of Africa’s food
  • they do the vast majority of the work to process, transport, store and market that food
  • and they provide 90 percent of the water, wood and fuel.
  • They do all this, despite the fact that they:
  • own 1% of the land
  • they receive less than 7% of farm extension services
  • and less than 10% of the credit given to small-scale farmers.

The African woman is meeting the basic survival needs of an entire continent and, instead of being recognized for this extraordinary achievement she has the lowest socio-economic status in all of African society.

The day in the life of a rural African woman

The rural woman in Africa works 18 hours a day – every day.

She starts her day at 4:30 in the morning – she is the first in her family to wake up.

After she breastfeeds her baby, she kindles the fire, walks several miles to fetch water, makes breakfast – eats what’s left over – she washes and dresses the children and feeds the livestock. And, this is all before 7:00am.

After breakfast, she fetches more water, walks to the family plot to plow, hoe, weed and plant – all with her baby tied to her back.

Then she returns home to prepare the mid-day meal, and takes lunch to her husband, who incidentally works about half the hours she does.

By one o’clock she’s back in the fields. She again walks several miles to gather firewood.

Before pounding and grinding maize into flour, she fetches more water and kindles the fire.

It’s now 6:30pm and she prepares the evening meal, serves it to her family – and of course, eats last and least. She washes the children and herself, and puts the house in order.

As she has all through the day, she again breastfeeds her baby and as she has all through the day she somehow finds the time to care for the sick and dying. This is a burden that has become evermore crushing with the HIV/AIDS crisis.

After all the chores are done and her family has gone to bed, she will be able to rest – it’s now around 10:30…she will have about 6 hours sleep before it all happens again.

And this is her life. This is her life – each and every day – for her entire life. It starts in her childhood and it continues right up until her early death.

I’ve been to 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the story is always the same – if you are in rural Africa you see women in the fields with a child tied to her back and most likely pregnant, working with the same farm implements that her grandmother’s grandmother used centuries ago.

It is often said, that if African women were to stop working for one day, there would be no food, no water, no fuel, no caring for the sick, no caring for the children, no sewing, no trading in the market – life would stop for that day.

The benefit to society when women have voice in the decisions that affect their lives

It is really hard to understand or imagine how constricted and controlled women’s lives are in the developing world.

They have almost no voice in their own homes…they may do all the work, but they have virtually no say in any of the important family decisions – what to spend money on, who gets better fed, whether to send the children to school. In fact, she has no say in whether to have more children to begin with.

And, particularly in South Asia, women even lack freedom of movement. They need permission to go outside of their homes – to the village well, to the village store, or even to a neighbor’s house.

If you come to a home and knock on the door and there is no male present she will answer the knock with the words “no one is home.” In their society, women by themselves are of no consequence.

In the developing world, women have the entire responsibility for almost every aspect of their family’s health and well-being. Yet they are systematically denied the information, education and freedom of action they need to fulfill that responsibility.

So, when we say empower women, what we mean is to remove the shackles and constraints that control, diminish and dehumanize her life.

When women do have voice in decisions that affect their lives:

  • they’re healthier
  • they have safer sex
  • fewer children
  • more of their children stay alive and are better nourished
  • and more children are in school, including girl

Universal agreement that the single most important intervention for development is the education of girls

There’s now universal agreement that the single most important intervention for development is the education of girls.

Nothing empowers a woman’s voice like education.

Educated women have fewer children. In fact, the empowerment of women is far more effective than economic growth in moderating fertility rates, and slowing population growth.

Educated women mean a higher survival rate for their children. In some African countries, just five years of schooling means a 40% higher rate of child survival.

Studies in India, Uganda, and the Philippines indicate that when mothers are educated, infant mortality rates are cut in half.

When women have voice, they make their children’s health and well-being their highest priority.

Educated mothers immunize their children 50% more often.

In Kenya and Malawi, studies indicate that malnutrition is lower among children in female-headed households.

And, studies from Brazil show that income in the hands of mothers has a far greater effect on family health than income in the hands of fathers. For child survival – the effect is 20 times greater.

Voice in their villages

And when women have voice in their villages, they alter the development agenda to address the critical issues of meeting basic needs.

I’ve been in workshops in India that prepare women to be effective leaders in local government. I’ve seen the tears run down their faces when they are called by their names – Nita, Priya, Manda. These are women – 35 or 40 years old – who rarely, if ever, have been called by their own names. They have been known as the daughter of, the sister of, the mother of… Until their participation in this workshop they had no real sense of their own identity.

For the first time in India’s 5,000 year history, women can now serve on village councils. In fact, one-third of the seats on village councils are reserved for women.

Having women be a part of local government in India is a revolution – some would say a bloody revolution.

In a village in Tamil Nadu, an upper-caste man told a low-caste woman that if she stood for elections and if she won, he would kill her.

She ran, she won, and he kept his promise.

But, that isn’t the end of the story, Her daughter contested the next election, won a seat, and is now serving in local government.

Women in local government address social ills. They take action against dowry, domestic violence, child marriage and child labor. They help other women to know their rights. Empowered women begin to transform gender relations and call into question the deeply entrenched patriarchal system.

I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen what the women can do.

At a meeting in Karnataka I met with elected women representatives. The women told me that they now have the confidence to go to the district officials and secure funds and demand services for their villages – services, by the way, that are rightfully theirs.

I was inspired to see the pride on their faces as they shared their accomplishments. For the first time ever, these women have brought to their villages clean water, usable roads. They’ve introduced electricity. They’ve built latrines. They’ve brought teachers into their villages. And, for the very first time, women are forming self-help groups to generate more income.


The inevitable conclusion is this – and this has been supported by study after study around the world – when women are empowered all of society benefits. There is:

  • faster economic growth
  • increased agricultural production
  • less corruption in governance
  • lower childhood malnutrition
  • lower child mortality
  • more children in school, including girls
  • greater social justice
  • and, the overall health and wellbeing of a society is greatly improved.

Call to action

Gender discrimination is the greatest moral challenge of our age. And, history will judge us on how we respond.

Gender discrimination thrives in silence. It is time to break that silence.

And it is beginning – last year the New York Times had 7 front page articles on the plight of African women. This has never happened before.

And you – the women of Microsoft – are uniquely qualified to contribute to this sea-change of consciousness.

Even if the only action you took in 2006 was to get this information out to your family, friends, and colleagues, you would open the space for transformation.

Then if you took the next step and used your technological skills to access further information on what’s happening with women in the developing world, you would be connecting with them and you would be broadening your own understanding.

And, as you become better educated on this issue, always – always – share what you are learning.

What’s needed is social transformation – catalyzed by awareness.

This transformation is absolutely needed and is absolutely complementary to the extraordinary contribution that Bill and Melinda Gates are making to our world.

Use the technology that you’ve created and have at your fingertips.

Do this – and you will contribute to the liberation of millions of your sisters in the developing world.

Do this – and you will contribute to ending hunger, ending abject poverty, and ending the worst human rights violation in history.