Narrates amazing story of a young mother of four, who made the difficult decision to plan her own future

In January, Melinda Gates met an empowered young mother Sharmila Devi near Patna in Bihar, who has four children, the youngest — Babita — being just four months old.

After Babita was born, Sharmila talked to a health worker who told her that she and her children would be healthier if she spaced her pregnancies further. The young woman also learnt about different contraceptive options and decided to have an IUD inserted though her husband and his parents wanted her to get pregnant right away.

The woman explained to her husband why she wanted to space their children and described how the IUD worked. Gradually, he came round to her point of view and though Sharmila’s mother-in-law did not approve of her plans, the young woman made the difficult decision to plan her own future. Now, she is focussed on giving her children a nutritious diet and saving money to pay their school fees.

“Sharmila’s courage is amazing, but I do not think it is unusual. Women have always had the courage to change the world. The unusual part of the story is the health system backing her up; the health worker who gave her the information she needed, the clinic that stocked the contraceptive she preferred, and the staff trained to do the procedure safely,” the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said, speaking at the Women Deliver conference here on Wednesday.

Ms. Gates said that in Bihar health workers now took a pledge before every meeting to improve the health and well-being of the entire community, irrespective of caste, religion or geographic distance. “This pledge is a symbol of the new partnership between the government and the women of Bihar. It is the basis of the change that helped Sharmila Devi make her courage count.”

Appreciating the steps taken by Bihar to improve women’s health, Ms. Gates said women did not always have the support they needed to make the decisions for themselves and their families. Now, in Bihar and in countries around the world they were starting to, she added.

Ms. Gates, a frequent visitor to Bihar, where the Gates Foundation runs several projects, said nothing was more inspiring than the story of a woman who found the strength to raise her voice again and again until people were forced to listen and respond. “To me, that is what the fight for women’s empowerment looks like, and we are here to make sure that millions of women like Sharmila will finally be able to make their courage count.”