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US Congress Should Back Bill Supporting Women’s Economic Empowerment

Supporting Land Rights an Important Step

Esther Mambwe and her family were evicted from Kalengo section by a commercial farmer in 2016. “We didn’t know anything about this [commercial] farm until one day we saw a muzungu [white man] carrying something and he said he was making a boundary,” Mambwe said. © 2017 Samer Muscati for Human Rights Watch

Earlier this week, the House Foreign Affairs committee approved a new bipartisan bill addressing women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment. It’s not comprehensive legislation on women’s economic empowerment – it doesn’t address family planning, for example. But it does address certain barriers women face in the economy. The bill, if adopted, would require that United States development assistance be used to reduce those barriers, a welcome step in the promotion of gender equality.

While the bill, H.R. 5480, doesn’t reverse restrictive measures put in place by the Trump administration on women’s access to reproductive health services and information, it does stand in stark contrast to the many harmful steps backward the US has taken in its global health assistance.

For example, if enacted, the bill would make it US policy to support activities to help secure women’s land and property rights, whether through legal reform and enforcement, or programs to help women claim their rights. It would also amend the US’s foreign assistance act to authorize assistance for the purpose of expanding property rights and promoting the economic empowerment of women, including through improving property and inheritance rights.

Land is a vital asset around the world. But in many countries, laws and social norms put women at a severe disadvantage when it comes to land inheritance, ownership, and control. Equal land and property rights help reduce poverty and promote women’s autonomy and safety, economic growth, and agricultural productivity and food security. Evidence from Human Rights Watch work on Zimbabwe and Zambia shows just how vital such measures are.

USAID has long supported efforts to promote women’s equal land and property rights. This bill can help ensure that those efforts continue by mandating that all US government programs overseas include goals in their monitoring systems on a gender basis, including improvements on property and land rights. It would also make it a legislative requirement that USAID report on the extent to which its assistance is targeting women and the very poor, including what is known about how such development assistance benefits women.

More certainly needs to be done in realizing gender equality not just in terms of land and property rights, but for the full spectrum of women’s rights. But a good place to start would be for the House to pass H.R. 5480.

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