Winnie Byanyima is executive director of Oxfam International.
Last week, first daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump unveiled a new global initiative to empower women. The Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, as it is called, pledges to help 50 million women in the developing world by 2025.
Thus far, $50 million has been allocated to it, provoking criticism for undervaluing the scale of change needed. But this initiative will not succeed or fail on its budget alone. What will be vital is the extent to which it tackles the structural barriers that keep women around the world from reaching their economic potential and truly being able to thrive.
The initiative comes in the shadow of the Trump administration’s rather negative and dangerous narratives on women and international development. President Trump has repeatedly sought cuts to foreign aid, including what we estimate to be a 35 percent cut for gender equality programs. He has championed the global gag rule that restricts women’s access to reproductive health care, endangering the lives of women and children. And he has attempted to change asylum rules to deny refuge for women fleeing domestic violence.
In this troubling context, this new program to support women is worth cautiously welcoming. This could be the moment when U.S. leadership begins to rethink its support for women’s rights. Or it could be a public relations stunt.
Will the initiative deliver results for girls living in poverty, such as those from Ruti, my village in Uganda? Some of them could become brilliant scientists or tech pioneers. Instead, they are herding goats, stuck in poverty. Can the initiative get behind free, quality public education for these girls?
Will it support women such as Fatima in Bangladesh, who works 80-hour weeks stitching clothes without toilet breaks? Or Melati in Indonesia, who had to peel 600 shrimp every hour simply to earn a minimum wage? These women help generate billions in profit but see little of it, no matter how hard they work. It would take Melati 4,000 years to make the average annual salary of a top U.S. supermarket chief executive.
These women are not some accidental outliers of an otherwise wildly successful model of globalization. In fact, our economy is systematically rigged in the favor of super-rich men who have built their extreme wealth on the backs of poor women.
Our engine of global economic growth has become one that powers economic and gender inequality. Nine out of 10 billionaires are men, and billionaire wealth increased by 12 percent last year, or $2.5 billion a day. Women, meanwhile, disproportionately make up the world’s insecure and poorly paid jobs. Ninety-five percent of women in South Asia and 89 percent of women in my own home of sub-Saharan Africa are in informal employment today.
To truly deliver for women in poverty, the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative must do more than invest in short-term solutions. It must challenge this deeply sexist and unequal economic model.
It could start by creatively challenging the discriminatory laws as well as the informal laws — the socialized values and cultural norms — that exploit the labor of women or make it harder for them to work. According to the World Bank, 104 countries still legally limit women’s ability to work in certain jobs, so they don’t have equal access to jobs that their male peers do.
The initiative could also cause a seismic shift if it invested in something women bear the burden of worldwide: care work. Approximately 16 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work around the world, most of it by women in poverty. This includes cooking, cleaning and caring for children, the elderly and the sick — work usually done for free and uncounted in gross domestic product calculations.
Not only would an effective program to empower women help governments monitor and reward care work, it also would invest in universal publicly financed services, including early-childhood education and care services. And it would push for better and safer transportation options with policies to prevent violence and harassment, to reduce a multitude of barriers that keep women from having access to meaningful employment.
Finally, given the influential role that U.S. companies play abroad, it could play a powerful role in the pursuit of jobs with dignity — something that most of the world’s female workers need. The initiative should push to ensure living wages, safer working conditions, and protections to prevent and respond to harassment and abuse. It should also work to diminish the pay gap between women and men.
This takes us to the heart of women’s economic equality and empowerment. For lasting change, women must be valued as equals with the same opportunities as men regardless of their income, race, religion or sexual identity. They must have equal access to education, training and land. Their rights must be upheld and gender-based violence prevented at all costs. Empowerment is a question of autonomy as much as income.
To drive this change, the United States must do more than pledge $50 million to as many women around the world. It must fully fund its assistance portfolio and put women at the heart of its development strategy by embedding more staff with gender expertise in its missions, bureaus and offices, and empowering front-line women’s groups.
To achieve transformational change for women around the world, we need initiatives such as this to play their part in ending the suffering and sexism of yesterday’s economic model. Let us take this opportunity to build the far more equal, human economy we need.