Empower women, turbo-charge the global economy

The new Congress may have a historic number of women joining its ranks, but kudos to the outgoing Congress for making one of its last acts a historic win for women and girls around the world.

In case you missed it amid the budget battle headlines, members of both parties from the House and Senate voted to send the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act (WEEE) to the president’s desk. It’s a bipartisan bill that would significantly boost global efforts to support more women to start or grow businesses, enter the workforce, or otherwise advance economically. 

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If you really want to help lift entire communities out of poverty for the long-term, the key is by empowering women and girls. When women and girls are empowered, it helps entire communities — including men and boys — become more prosperous, stable, and resilient.

Think of Salimata Dagnoko from Africa’s Ivory Coast. Forced to marry at 13, she was a mother of five by the time she turned 20. Her 60-year-old husband regularly abused her physically, verbally, and emotionally. “He did everything to me,” she says.

Salimata had one dress, “which I washed every night…I had no life. I didn't know how to write. I had not gone to school.” But she understood the opportunity before her when she was explained the concept behind a program called a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), one of the many programs included in the WEEE Act. 

It works basically like this: About 20 or so people — mostly women — meet weekly, pool their savings and loan one another money, which they use to start businesses or to cover health expenses, school fees or other household costs. They repay the loans with interest. However, because VSLAs rely on savings from members themselves, rather than an outside creditor, the interest comes back to the group as profit. On “Share-out Day” at the end of a typical one-year cycle, members divide that profit according to the amount each has invested during the year.

Determined to turn the page on her life, Salimata joined a VSLA.

Her first loan was for $2, which she used to buy salt. There were no salt sellers in her community, so she became one. She paid it back within a couple of weeks. She then took another loan. And another. She bought salt in increasing quantities, selling it quickly in the local market. Word spread. And so did her business. Salimata answered the growing demand with more supply — until she was selling salt in bulk. She had become a wholesaler.

Empowered and financially independent of her abusive husband, she divorced him, 13 long years after being forced to marry him as a child. “I have found a good place now,” Salimata says, having built a thriving business, bought her own home and educated her children. She even bought one son a car, which he uses for his own business: a taxi service. 

Despite the backbreaking work many women around the world endure — whether it’s selling salt or weaving baskets — making ends meet is extraordinarily difficult because they’re blocked from the very basics that could help their small businesses thrive:

  • access to a bank account and financial services
  • the ability to own and manage their own resources
  • the freedom and safety to move freely about their communities

The stats prove that empowering women has a positive ripple effect across an entire community. When a woman is able to earn money, she reinvests it into her children’s education, health and future, catalyzing broader development within her community and through her nation. 

For example, in Rwanda, the average number of meals per day eaten by VSLA members rose from 2.1 to 3.2, improving the nutrition of women and their families. VSLA participation nearly doubled access to health services for families in Ethiopia and Bangladesh. VSLA participation also results in better education for children — today, thousands of kids now have access to new schools that stay open year after year. 

It’s not just about VSLAs — there are so many ways that economic empowerment is happening around the world for women. In Peru, groups are teaching female ranchers how to grow bigger, fatter cattle that earn them more money at market and assure their children won’t go hungry. In Cambodia, training young women allows them to support themselves as tailors. And in Kenya, coaching women smallholder farmers how to grow more corn and diversify their crops allows them to boost their incomes, protect the soil and improve their diets.

The WEEE Act strikes at the roots of poverty using modern tools that can’t be contained in a box. Its passage brings us one small but important step closer to achieving gender parity in the world economy, which could add an astonishing $28 trillion each year to the global GDP.

We need this bipartisan, good-news story out of Washington that benefits us all. President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE should waste no time in signing this historic legislation and working with Congress to fully fund the international affairs budget, an effective investment that saves lives, promotes a safer world, and creates economic opportunities for Americans.

The WEEE Act is the ultimate example of how foreign aid has evolved from a hand-out to a hand-up. Women like Salimata are now part of the change. Not satisfied with just changing her own life, she has started 175 VSLA groups helping thousands of women and is president of the VSLA network in her part of West Africa. 

“People who knew me before — they now see the difference in my life,” she says. “But it’s not me alone. My story is the same for a lot of women. We help ourselves, and we change our situation.”

Michelle Nunn is president and CEO of CARE USA, an international aid group.