Opinion: Making the most of the US 'umbrella initiative' for women's empowerment

A woman uses a power tiller for farming, a skill she learned from USAID trainings. Photo by: USAID Asia

Today, the U.S. administration is launching a long-anticipated, inter-agency “umbrella initiative” designed to advance women’s economic empowerment globally. This could be an important opportunity for advancing gender equality in U.S. foreign policy. The government has already addressed other issues seen as important for equality, such as gender-based violence, girls’ empowerment and women’s experience of war and peace. However, this will be the first time the U.S. government articulates a comprehensive approach for U.S. foreign policy and assistance to help women take control of their economic independence.

“The administration’s initiative can only serve as an effective complement to the WEEE Act if it brings new resources to the table.”

The Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Equality — a D.C.-based group of international development organizations committed to this critical issue — recognizes that this interagency U.S. government commitment comes at a critical moment. CWEEE hopes that this new initiative will help address the complex needs faced by women, communities, and businesses around the world. Women’s economic empowerment requires more than just increasing their economic participation and advancement. It also includes women’s ability to make meaningful economic decisions, own and control assets, mitigate risks such as the threat of gender-based violence, and have an enabling environment — including laws, education, comprehensive health care, and child or elder care — that supports their empowerment.

Many global donors and investors have often overlooked this broader enabling environment with efforts that focus exclusively on increasing financial metrics for women, such as income or household savings. Those metrics are indeed essential, but efforts must also address the root problems that put women at a disadvantage when it comes to power and decision-making in the household, community, workplace, and society-at-large.

When women lack the genuine ability to realize economic rights equally with men, women will remain at a disadvantage no matter how many dollars we put toward their economic empowerment. By contrast, when women have the full enabling environment to thrive in all parts of their lives, investments in women’s economic empowerment are more effective and sustainable. The designers of the administration’s initiative appear to have considered this.

Last fall, when Ivanka Trump announced at the U.N. General Assembly that she would launch an umbrella initiative on women’s economic empowerment, she indicated that it would focus on three pillars: vocational education and skills training, the promotion of women entrepreneurs, and creation of an enabling environment for women in the developing world to freely and fairly participate in their economies. CWEEE will examine the administration’s initiative closely for its attention to this third pillar.

The administration is not the only player working through U.S. foreign policy to enable women to take control of their economic lives. In December, Congress passed the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act, supported overwhelmingly by both Democrats and Republicans.

The WEEE Act, signed into law on Jan. 9, expands U.S. Agency for International Development’s focus on women’s entrepreneurship in its development work worldwide and requires an analysis of how gender-based constraints impact USAID programs. The legislation enshrines into law good development practice, requiring that programs address underlying gender barriers that women face. It lays the groundwork for a development approach that can accelerate what drives women’s economic empowerment and dismantle what hinders it.

The administration’s initiative can only serve as an effective complement to the WEEE Act if it brings new resources to the table. There’s reason to hope that new funding will be announced.

In 2017, the U.S. provided $50 million toward a $1 billion effort with other World Bank member countries for the Women Entrepreneurs’ Finance Initiative, which will unlock capital for women-led and owned businesses in developing countries. Last summer, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation announced its own plans to mobilize $1 billion through the 2X Women’s Initiative for lending to women-owned, women-focused, or women-run enterprises around the world. It also worked with G-7 countries, which committed to helping leverage $3 billion more in investments towards the effort by 2020.

Women’s economic empowerment is a smart investment for U.S. foreign assistance, but only if it ensures that the greater enabling environment and support for women’s rights is in place. Women must be able to live free of violence and exploitation, have equal and accessible land, property and inheritance rights, and achieve the highest possible standards of health and well-being. They also need the elimination of discriminatory laws that limit the mobility, citizenship, or full economic participation of women and girls and legal frameworks that protect their labor rights.

Now is the time for the U.S. to support women around the world as they unlock their full potential as active members of their households, communities, economies, and societies. This requires taking a holistic approach to women’s economic empowerment and leveraging U.S. foreign aid, trade, and diplomatic engagement to achieve that goal.

About the authors

  • Lyric

    Lyric Thompson

    Lyric Thompson is the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. In this capacity she leads the institution’s formulation of evidence-based policy recommendations and manages ICRW’s advocacy efforts with the U.S. government and internationally. In addition to serving as the co-chair of the Girls Not Brides USA advocacy coalition, Lyric is also on the steering committee of the Coalition to End Gender-Based Violence Globally, the board of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, the Executive Committee of the Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and the board of the Community Center for Integrated Development of Cameroon.
  • Gayatri

    Gayatri Patel

    Gayatri Patel is the senior policy advocate for gender at CARE USA. In this capacity, she leads the advocacy and outreach efforts of the organization on the gender priorities that cut across all of CARE’s work both in the United States and globally. Gayatri is a co-chair of the Girls Not Brides USA Coalition as well as of the Steering Group of the Coalition to End Violence Against Women. Gayatri joined CARE after nearly 10 years advising the U.S. State Department on a variety of human rights and humanitarian issues.
  • Elise head shot to use

    Elise Young

    Elise Young serves as senior adviser, gender mainstreaming and thought leadership at FHI 360. She is an international development and policy professional with more than 15 years of experience. She has worked for multiple years on the ground in both Francophone and Anglophone Africa, Haiti and the Caribbean, and specializes in fair trade, economic development, food security, agricultural development, land rights, women's rights, education, gender integration, civil society consultation and overall aid accountability.
  • Klasing%2520head%2520shot%25202018

    Amanda Klasing

    Amanda Klasing is (acting) co-director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Her work focuses on research and advocacy for the promotion of the human rights of women and girls around the world, including their right to health, social and economic rights, and right to live free from violence.