Could Women’s Economic Empowerment Worldwide Actually Win in Washington?

At a time when it may seem hard to find common ground in Washington, investing in women’s economic empowerment globally is bringing people together.

In April, the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act was introduced in the House of Representatives—legislation bringing together sound development strategies on women’s financial inclusion and entrepreneurship in developing countries. The bill signals Congressional support for a concept those of us in the development community have known for some time: investing in women’s economic growth can multiply impacts throughout their communities and societies.

Women’s economic empowerment is an important umbrella under which governments, civil society and individuals can work towards women’s equal access and opportunity to labor markets, labor force participation, corporate leadership, business-ownership and entrepreneurship—and in order to achieve it, nations and communities must also ensure women’s human rights in other areas of their lives, such as having access to quality health services and voluntary family planning care, living a life free from violence and ensuring that unpaid care burdens are recognized and accounted for. The process requires that women have access to the resources that allow them to grow wealth, such as financial capital, credit and land, while also having the agency or capacity to make economic decisions.

Financial literacy and business training, collective bargaining rights for better wages and  overcoming discriminatory laws or social norms are all critical to fostering women’s economic empowerment. Similarly, women’s economic empowerment is essential to the success of our global development goals: it has direct ties to poverty alleviation, gender equality, education economic growth and children’s health.

When it comes to wages, property ownership or capital, discriminatory laws, policies and practices still hold women back—regardless of where they live or how much education they have attained. Barriers to formal financial systems undermine their ability to access credit, loans, savings accounts and other financial services that could help them start and grow businesses, which is compounded by a widespread lack of education or training, harassment and other forms of gender-based violence, lack of access to comprehensive and good quality healthcare  discrimination. In the worst instances, women’s hereditary assets may even be blatantly taken from them.

This is why the Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality (CWEEE) welcomed the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act—a bipartisan bill introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Women’s Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) which recognizes how essential investments in women’s entrepreneurship and financial inclusion are to advancing the United States’ other international development goals. It also recognizes the interconnectedness of economic advancement with other conditions in women’s lives, such as gender-based violence and unpaid care responsibilities.

The new legislation will, among other things, make it U.S. policy to address the gender disparities that block women’s economic participation and opportunity, strive to eliminate gender-based violence and support women’s property rights; expand support for small and medium-sized enterprises that are owned, managed and controlled by women; modernize USAID’s development assistance to include such items as financial literacy, access to financial services  and improved realization of property and inheritance rights; and require USAID to report on efforts to support women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment globally—so advocates working on the ground will know if the progress we all want to see is actually happening.

This legislation is a great step forward. It recognizes that women don’t live their lives in silos, and that their ability to contribute meaningfully to the economic security and resilience of their families and communities are linked with a host of other factors.

A broad investment strategy not only creates short-term gains, but also contributes to the resilience of a family or community. CARE’s Village Saving and Loans Association (VSLA) model has demonstrated that communities, especially those that are living in poverty, have the capacity to turn their lives around when legal frameworks and access to resources are not a hindrance. These groups of 10 to 25 people save together and take small loans from those savings, the profits of which are shared out among the members. The model has been refined and scaled up to many countries around the world and has yielded some important lessons in women’s empowerment strategies.

In many areas, we see that women that have attained financial independence are more able to exercise and enjoy other fundamental rights, including living free from gender-based violence. There is also evidence that members of communities where women who made great strides towards economic empowerment live more fulfilling lives because women tend to prioritize improved family livelihoods and care.

Agio Fibi, the chairperson of Adamasko Village Saving and Loan Association group in Matali Village, Uganda, understands the transformation and security that comes with economic empowerment. Agio Fibi had the courage—and the resources, thanks to the VSLA support— to walk out of a violent marriage to be able to start a new life peacefully. “After more than 15 years in marriage, my husband came home with a younger woman, I was treated like trash, he stopped supporting my children and he was also very violent,” she explained. “He was sure I could not live without him because I was very poor. However, when I joined the VSLA group, I realized that I could make my own money and support myself and children, there was no reason of staying in an abusive relationship, VSLA brought me freedom.”

Like Chairman Royce and Rep. Frankel, CWEE represent a diverse array of organizations, but we adhere to a core set of principles that reflect a comprehensive definition of and approach to women’s economic empowerment that includes women’s agency and decision-making power, as well as the enabling environment that makes empowerment and equality possible for all women.

Economic advancement contributes to the power of women to know and claim or demand their full range of human rights, which in turn strengthen and reinforce their economic stability and advancement. Both components are necessary to improve the lives and wellbeing of women, their families and communities. Investing in women is truly investing for impact—the kind that pays out in healthier children, stronger families and more resilient communities.

We all want to know that U.S. foreign assistance is making an impact in the lives of women around the world, particularly those living in the worst poverty—and in an era of spending cuts, we want to see the U.S. at least leverage existing economic empowerment resources to do so.

About and

Teresa Casale is the Global Policy Advocate for the International Center for Research on Women and leads the organization’s advocacy portfolio on issues related to UN engagement, women’s economic empowerment and women, peace and security. She serves as the Vice Chair of the U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security; manages the Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality; and coordinates the Feminist UN Campaign. Follow her on twitter @TeresaIsabelleC.
Gayatri Patel is vice president of external relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission. With nearly 20 years of experience in women’s rights and gender equality, Gayatri oversees the organization’s policy advocacy and communications. Gayatri previously served as the director of gender advocacy at CARE USA, where she led US government advocacy on women’s economic empowerment, gender-based violence, and gender in humanitarian emergencies. Additionally, she chaired various gender-focused advocacy coalitions to push for strong policies and resources to advance gender equality globally.