Women's economic empowerment gets a boost with passage of legislation

A shop owner on Bugala Island, Uganda. Photo by: USAID

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed a bipartisan bill aimed at improving the U.S. Agency for International Development’s women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment programs and activities.

The Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act outlines many of the challenges women face in getting access to finance and other barriers to economic empowerment including land rights, health, and violence. It directs USAID to work to improve access to finance, reduce gender disparities, eliminate gender-based violence, support women’s property and land rights, and improve education, among other things.

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The bill passed the House easily in July but faced challenges in the Senate, with White House adviser Ivanka Trump getting involved in the last few months. The key points of contention were around the definitions of gender — some far-right religious groups took issue with language — but in the end, the Senators found a way to overcome objections.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Arizona, with Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Benjamin Cardin, and Marco Rubio all original cosponsors, made some changes to the House bill, so the House will have to take another vote, which is expected this week.

When outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, the sponsor of the House bill, introduced the bill for the July vote, he said: “I believe that we should invest our limited foreign assistance dollars wisely. I’ve also seen the good things that happen when we focus on empowering women. That’s what this bill does.”

The bill states that the USAID administrator will need to ensure that the “strategies, projects, and activities of the Agency are shaped by a gender analysis; standard indicators are used to assess such strategies, projects, and activities, if applicable; and gender equality and female empowerment are integrated throughout the Agency’s program cycle and related processes for purposes of strategic planning, project design and implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.”

USAID will be required to submit a report to Congress about the implementation of the act and what actions it has taken to improve gender policies within a year of the bill being enacted.

“[The WEEE Act] strengthens the Agency’s programming for gender equality and women’s empowerment, builds upon the success of our work in Microenterprise, and expands the universe of potential partners to also include small and medium enterprises working in the areas of finance, enterprise development and the enabling environment,” Michelle Bekkering, senior deputy assistant administrator of the bureau for economic growth, education, and environment, and senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment at USAID, said in a statement to Devex.

Bekkering also pointed out that the legislation builds off of President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy, which highlighted how societies are more peaceful and prosperous when women fully participate in the economy.

CARE spent a lot of time with members of the House in particular in helping to craft this legislation, starting with hearings in July 2017 that raised some of the issues the bill ultimately addressed, said Gayatri Patel, senior policy advocate for gender and empowerment at CARE USA.

A number of the barriers to women’s economic empowerment that CARE has encountered in its work are reflected in the bill, including exclusion from financial services, from access to bank accounts to credit and financial mentorship, she said.

“The bill focuses on financial inclusion of women and gives USAID the authority to program in a way that can expand those opportunities for women,” Patel said.

Now that the bill makes official a priority on women’s empowerment she said she expects to see changes in how USAID works, and greater or easier integration of the principles across sectors.

“This is an incredibly strong first step on women’s economic empowerment and I see this bill doing a lot of good, but there is a bigger picture when it comes to women’s economic empowerment, and women’s empowerment. There is still a lot of work to do,” Patel said.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.