Updating the U.S. Playbook on Global Women’s Economic Empowerment

When President-elect Biden is sworn into office on January 20, 2021, he will face unprecedented challenges, including a global pandemic, growing inequality, a changing climate, and an economic downturn, all of which have disproportionately impacted women. Nonetheless, this growing gender disparity comes at a time of increased focus on women’s issues globally (for example via the women, peace, and security and sexual and reproductive health and rights agendas), the salience of the #MeToo movement, and the election of the first female vice president in the United States. The pandemic thus poses great challenges, but also an opportunity to focus on recovery through supporting women, who—despite being more negatively affected—have exemplified integrity and leadership throughout the global crisis.

There is often a temptation to view women’s empowerment through simply an economic lens; this would be a mistake. No one global women’s issue should take precedent over the others. While economic empowerment is important (and the focus of this commentary), resolving the challenges women face will require a multifaceted and intersectional approach that goes beyond economics by addressing education and health (including sexual and reproductive health) constraints, preventing gender-based violence, and closing the gender digital divide.

The next president seems to understand this, with a recent statement from a transition spokesperson claiming that “women’s issues will be at the forefront of policy efforts in the Biden-Harris administration.” Though made in response to a question about reproductive rights, the statement is illustrative, if nothing else because of its breadth and consistency with what then-candidate Biden stated in his “agenda for women.” Though mostly focused on greater inclusion and equality for women in the United States, this agenda specifically places the global “[elevation of] women economically” as one of its core pillars. In turning this agenda into an updated playbook on women’s economic empowerment (WEE), the Biden administration should understand the cross-cutting nature of global women’s issues today, learning what it can from effective past and ongoing efforts while championing a transformative WEE agenda on the global stage.

Copious volumes of evidence suggest that economies everywhere benefit when women are empowered to participate in them. This is particularly true in the developing world where WEE should be seen as a foundation upon which an inclusive post-pandemic recovery is built. Luckily, the president-elect need not start from scratch, especially on WEE efforts in international development.

“There is often a temptation to view women’s empowerment through simply an economic lens; this would be a mistake. No one global women’s issue should take precedent over the others.”

The bipartisan Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 committed the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to incorporating female empowerment in all of its programming, including through robust gender analysis of all the agency’s activities. One key program that incorporates this mentality is the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative, which established a fund aimed at advancing three pillars: providing workforce development for women; promoting women’s entrepreneurship; and removing legal, regulatory, and cultural barriers currently preventing women from participating in the economy. A whole-of-government approach launched in 2019, this initiative has already reportedly reached 12 million people worldwide and aims to reach 50 million by 2025. It links to like-minded multilateral initiatives like the World Bank’s Women Entrepreneur’s Finance Initiative (WEFI), which aims to provide female entrepreneurs with the capital and support they need to grow their businesses. 

Other U.S.-led initiatives working within W-GDP include the WomenConnect Challenge, which has to date awarded $2.9 million in grants to organizations seeking to bridge the gender digital divide, as well as the U.S. Development Finance Corporation’s (DFC) 2X Women’s Initiative, which has provided more than $3 billion of investment in projects that “are owned by women, led by women, or provide a product or service that empowers women.” In 2020, the DFC committed to providing $6 billion more in investment toward these areas, which should transition well to an incoming administration intent on elevating women economically.

These and other ongoing efforts might need updating based on the Biden-Harris administration’s priorities and could use clearer metrics on their effectiveness and impact. But they do provide a strong foundation on which to build a new intersectional women’s empowerment agenda, perhaps as part of a revitalized and empowered White House Council on Women and Girls, which was started by President Obama and ended by President Trump. Regardless, a transformative WEE agenda must focus on the current and future challenges women face in order to respond and rebuild from the Covid-19 crisis effectively, elevating them to a central and cross-cutting component of response and rebuilding efforts.

Women are more broadly affected by Covid-19 even though men are dying at a higher rate. Already 4 percent more likely to experience extreme poverty than men, UN Women estimates that the global poverty rate among women will increase by 9.1 percent due to the pandemic. Globally, women are more likely to work in the informal sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, including domestic work, food service, and education. Women working in these and other informal sectors, especially in the developing world, have little or no access to social safety nets and insurance; in other words, they have little support in the event of a disruption to their livelihoods. They also are on the front lines of the pandemic itself, risking infection (and thus both health and economic repercussions) as health and social care workers. Globally, 70 percent of these workers are women. At the same time, as President-elect Biden has acknowledged, Covid-19 has increased domestic responsibilities—especially childcare—for women and girls while limiting their access to education and employment.

“Childcare should be seen as a broader economic issue that, left unaddressed, will hamper any recovery.”

Gender-based violence (GBV) has long been considered a human rights, health, and social issue. It is all these things, a scourge with significant mental, emotional, and physical repercussions. But GBV is also an economic issue. Often referred to as a “shadow pandemic,” GBV has increased significantly during Covid-19 as women and girls are forced to be at home with their abusers. This in turn has further limited the ability of women to attend jobs and be productive. The World Bank estimated in 2019 that GBV costs countries up to 3.7 percent of their GDP, a figure that has almost certainly increased due to Covid-19.

Many of these challenges existed before a pandemic that has made them worse. Addressing economic empowerment issues should be seen as an important (though not the only) way of building back better post-pandemic. Here are some ways to update the U.S. WEE playbook to meet the challenges the Biden-Harris administration will soon face.

Prioritize childcare and education for women and girls as economic issues. Working from home while caring for children who are attending school remotely results in an extreme increase, usually for women, in unpaid care responsibilities. It can also take a significant toll on women’s mental health. For those who are not fortunate enough to work from home, the economic impact is even more acute. Childcare should be seen as a broader economic issue that, left unaddressed, will hamper any recovery. Similarly, keeping girls in school and ensuring women have meaningful access to adult education and training should not be siloed as “gender issues,” but rather mainstreamed into any discussion of inclusive recovery.

Close the gender digital divide. The gender digital divide multiplies the barriers blocking women from education, work, and entrepreneurship during lockdown. Expanding digital access for women would not only reduce these barriers, but it would also lay the foundation for a more digitally savvy, future-oriented economy for all. To accomplish this, the Biden-Harris administration should analyze the impact of the WomenConnect Challenge and prioritize digital infrastructure development at USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the DFC, and other relevant U.S. government agencies while partnering with like-minded friends to pursue cross-cutting, multidimensional solutions. Specific focus should be given to facilitating working capital solutions for women entrepreneurs and minority-owned businesses more negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Partner with like-minded friends. The Biden-Harris administration has placed re-invigorated international partnerships at the top of its agenda. “America is back,” touted the president-elect when naming his national security team. WEE presents a significant vector through which to reassert global leadership, especially since many of the United States’ friends and allies are already working in this space. In other words, there are many opportunities to “plug in,” elevate, and even lead. For example, the United States could focus on expanding women entrepreneurs’ access to capital and reducing the barriers to women’s economic participation in the developing world, exploring bilateral funding and programming relationships with countries like Germany, Denmark, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, all of whom have ongoing global WEE efforts. Doing so would increase women’s share of the workforce, ease business creation and entrepreneurship, and hasten the global economic recovery more broadly, all while signaling that the United States is indeed back. Importantly, many of the United States’ friends and allies rightly do not see WEE as isolated from sexual and reproductive health and rights; in pursuing partnerships and in developing its own women’s empowerment playbook, the United States should take a similarly intersectional approach.

Re-engage with multilateral efforts. The United States should amplify and advance worthy multilateral WEE priorities as part of its focus on broader inclusive recovery. In addition to the World Bank’s WEFI mentioned above, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality and women’s rights—which recognizes that women’s rights are human rights and calls for gender equality in all areas of life—is worthy of amplification and support. The United Kingdom’s 2021 G7 presidency offers another excellent opportunity to put forth WEE as a foundational post-pandemic recovery principle. In line with USAID’s commitment to maintaining a gender lens in all its programming, the United States could even consider leading a multilateral economic recovery effort—for example, at the World Bank, regional development banks, or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—which incorporates specific provisions for WEE at all levels of design and implementation. Other conventions to amplify include the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and multiple International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions around the critical issue of gender equality in the workplace. In addition, the United States should ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Whatever the banner, championing worthy existing conventions and taking up new ones are additional opportunities for U.S. leadership in the multilateral system after years of neglect. More importantly, re-engaging with multilateral WEE efforts would offer a central point for the global participation needed to meaningfully rebuild economies in the wake of Covid-19. 

Continue to elevate women leaders, giving them the data and resources to succeed. History suggests that women should be placed in leadership roles when facing the challenges mentioned above if the goal is indeed to use the coming post-pandemic period as an opportunity to “build back better.” In recent weeks, the president-elect has named a historically diverse cabinet and an all-female White House communications team. Representation matters but is only the beginning; once in office, these officials should view robust programming that addresses the challenges facing women, many of which predate Covid-19, as a cross-cutting area of importance to post-pandemic recovery. They must also be given the data and resources they need to succeed. Gender equality funding has also been decreasing since 2014, a trend that must be reversed should leaders be empowered to lead. Similarly, those responsible for pandemic response at home and abroad need better access to gender-disaggregated data in order to design more inclusive responses.

The Biden-Harris transition has identified Covid-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change as its top initial strategic priorities. Genuine progress on economically empowering women—a cross-cutting issue throughout these four priorities—would provide the foundation on which to build back better at home and abroad.

Janina Staguhn is the program coordinator for the Project on Prosperity and Development and Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Erol Yayboke is deputy director and a senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

This commentary is made possible by the generous support of the Embassy of Germany in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Janina Staguhn
Research Associate and Program Manager, Project on Prosperity and Development
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Erol Yayboke
Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program