Weekly Columns

In our country’s recent past, we’ve seen just how much women bring to the table when it comes to the economy. Whether it’s starting their own businesses or joining companies of all sizes, their impact has been felt across every industry and reveals just how important their contributions are.

If we’ve recognized this reality in the United States it only makes sense to encourage other nations to learn from this example.

Women make up the majority of the world’s poor and are often held back by gender-specific constraints to economic empowerment such as lack of access to financial services and credit. In many corners of the world, cultural and historical barriers make it difficult for women to start businesses, build savings and make meaningful economic contributions.

Acknowledging these obstacles and understanding that the economy in countries where they exist, as well as in the increasingly interconnected global economy, is ultimately held back by women’s lack of access to vital economic tools and resources is what led Congress to take action.

I was joined by my colleague Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) in introducing the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act (WEEE Act) to provide an avenue to address economic opportunity inequality by tapping into the proven abilities of existing United States Agency for International Development (USAID) programs. USAID, which uses strategic investments to promote growth and development while advancing U.S. interests and influence, is perfectly situated to implement this initiative because it understands how to effectively deploy resources to – as its mission states – “lift lives, build communities and establish self-sufficiency.”

There was widespread agreement in Congress that our proposal was a smart, sensible approach to elevating women and enabling them to achieve their economic dreams and aspirations. Our bill passed the House and Senate in late 2018 and was signed into law last month.

The legislation also had support from key stakeholders, non-governmental organizations and the White House. Presidential advisor Ivanka Trump was a critical backer of the bill and helped ensure that it reached the finish line.

The WEEE Act will help the more than one billion women who are left out of the world’s formal financial system by expanding USAID’s microenterprise development assistance authority to include small and medium-sized enterprises with an emphasis on supporting those owned, managed and controlled by women. Additionally, it will modernize USAID’s development assistance toolkit to include innovative credit scoring models, financial technology, financial literacy, insurance and more to improve property and inheritance rights––all of which are vital in helping to overcome deep-rooted cultural and institutional hurdles that preclude women from accessing resources necessary for economic success.

I have complete confidence that USAID Administrator Mark Green and his team will implement our legislation in a way that will simultaneously work to the benefit of our international aid mission while also helping to uplift and empower women in countries all over the world to succeed in a way that has been just beyond their reach up until now. 

All of those who worked on this bill shared an understanding that, because women in some parts of the world are pushed so far to the margins that they are denied access to even the most basic financial services – much less business loans –, leveling the playing field is the right thing to do. If we can achieve this goal the global economy stands to grow significantly. That is a good thing for women, their families and their communities.