Gender equality advocates across the globe celebrated the House passage of the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment (WEEE) Act in May, which promotes feminist international development policies that support female entrepreneurs. The WEEE Act affirms the importance of women’s rights—to own and control land and property, to live lives free of violence, to access the financial tools they need to start and grow businesses and to be successful economic actors.
Originally introduced by Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) in the House, the legislation was later introduced in the Senate by John Boozman (R-AR), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). The bill has since passed unanimously through the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and now it awaits a vote by the full chamber. Thanks to our Congressional champions, coalition partners and grassroots support, we are confident that women’s economic empowerment can indeed win in Washington.
The Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality is encouraged by this, especially during a time when bipartisan cooperation seems elusive. Regardless of whether the legislation crosses the final finish line before the end of the year, a strong foundation has been laid for policies and further action around women’s economic justice worldwide. Congress has demonstrated that this issue is a priority with broad support—and looking ahead to 2019, we are working to ensure this issue doesn’t lose momentum.
As we greet a new class of lawmakers in January, including an unprecedented number of women, we will be there to help them understand why women’s economic empowerment is important to women themselves, their communities and global development writ large.
The issue has found champions in the executive branch as well. The Trump administration has announced its intentions to launch an “umbrella initiative” on women’s economic empowerment in early 2019, which they say will advance women’s entrepreneurship, workforce development and access to skills as well as support an enabling environment for women to succeed economically. While we await details on what this initiative will actually do to promote women’s economic empowerment, we know that U.S. Government leadership on this issue is critical to women worldwide.
Key to engaging both the Congress and the administration is driving home the point that economic advancement needs to bring women access to income, credit, land or other productive resources—but it must be paired with women’s ability to own, manage and reap the benefits from these resources. Women must have the ability to make and affect the decisions that shape their economic lives. True economic empowerment provides not only increased economic resources for women, but also greater equality and the realization of economic and social rights. These rights include the right to own and dispose of property, to have identity documents, to be educated, to learn new skills and to earn an income.
Fighting for women’s economic empowerment requires us to fight, too, from women’s freedom from violence and discrimination and an end to the idea that women cannot and should not hold power in their own lives. The WEEE Act is a good step in the right direction, but the international community must continue to explore and challenge the institutions and systems which restrict women’s agency and decision-making power.
This parallel prong of women’s economic empowerment too often goes overlooked—at the peril of our own economies. When at least half of the population is living beneath its economic potential, everyone loses. Economies thrive when as many people as possible are employed, gaining capital, building assets and wielding their purchasing power. In economies where women are not able to participate fully, the country’s sustainable and inclusive growth potential is limited.
When local and national economies thrive when women are empowered, those ripples are felt around the world. A McKinsey Global Institute report has found that if all women were completely on par with men in labor markets, it would add up to $28 trillion, or 26 percent, to the annual global GDP by 2025. Strong economies are less indebted and require less development assistance. They are better able to meet the needs of their people, consume more imports and engage in more trade—fostering markets that generate jobs and increase exports. Strong economies are also more stable politically.
Investing in women makes good economic sense—but research shows that the economic advancement of women has benefits that extend even further. When women have access to greater resources, they have greater power to enjoy their full range of human rights, including access to health services and living lives free from violence; these outcomes contribute to healthier children and stronger families, because we know women tend to prioritize improved family livelihoods and care.
A growing understanding among policymakers of the truly global benefits of women’s economic empowerment paved the way for the bipartisan support of the WEEE Act. The Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality hopes to see the bill cross the finish line this congress—but beyond the realities of the legislative calendar, civil society and governments must remain committed to advancing women’s equality for the good of entire communities around the world.