Another normal day in the factory…

By Marat Yu, of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)

I recently went on a floor visit when observing a HERhealth training in a ready-made garment (RMG) factory in Bangladesh. It was another normal day in the factory – hundreds of female workers busy sewing and stitching in order to meet the hourly targets, and their supervisors, predominantly male, patrolling the lines and barking orders to correct errors and speed up the process. The floors were so noisy that one either had to speak up, or lowered themselves to speak in close proximity; I wonder what could have been said by the supervisor to his worker during those moments: a compliment, an order, or an insult?

Sexual harassment is endemic in the RMG industry in Bangladesh – about 60 percent of female workers have experienced harassment at work. It is an everyday experience for many female workers as they endure abusive behaviors, including offensive and sexually explicit language and physical acts. Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) supported icddr,b, an international research organization, to conduct qualitative research to better understand the forms and causes of violence in factories. Key findings include:

  • Emotional violence in the form of verbal abuse, scolding and insulting in public are common in RMG factories. Female workers are especially vulnerable to harassment when they fail to meet production targets, make a mistake, or request leave. Verbal abuse is sometimes accompanied by physical violence, e.g. slapping, pushing or shoving, hair-pulling, etc.
  • Sexual violence is the most hidden form of violence, and there is high acceptance of that among female workers. Victims do not want to report via the official complaint channel as they are afraid of retaliation or losing their jobs. Their reputation may be tarnished as they will be perceived as “loose women”, which will in turn affect their marital prospects or marriages.
  • Middle-level management, e.g. line supervisors, chiefs and production managers, are the main perpetrators of violence. They face heavy pressure for achieving production targets and perceive that abuse is the most effective tool for pushing workers to achieve their targets. Some of them also abuse their power to attain sexual gratification.
  • Factory owners tend to adopt a military style in running the business. Ex-army officers are recruited to lead the human resources department and authoritative supervisors are often appreciated and rewarded by the company.
  • Beyond the factory wall, many female workers have also experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) in their families. According to a previous study conducted by icddr,b as part of the WHO multi-country study, every two out of five women report experiencing physical violence from an intimate partner in urban Bangladesh. IPV carries an economic cost, as victims display significantly higher levels of work distraction and have greater employment instability.

Sexual harassment not only deprives workers of their basic rights and compromises their well-being, workers in such negative environments also tend to have lower productivity and morale and higher turnover, which directly affects business. Although it is a major risk in the supply chain, existing interventions such as auditing and setting up anti-harassment committees are not enough to tackle the roots causes; when carried out in silos without support of awareness-raising activities, such measures may even cause backlash, e.g. proactive committee members being harassed or sacked.

With the support of DFID’s What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Programme, BSR’s HERrespect will take a holistic approach to promote positive gender relations in the workplace and in the household. While the program is still in the design phase, the 10-month program will include:

  • Training for middle management and workers, both male and female, on gender awareness and interpersonal skills to prevent and address sexual harassment and IPV;
  • Guidance on best practices and policies to prevent and address sexual harassment. This workstream will be implemented in collaboration with ILO/IFC’s Better Work program, and
  • Training for peer leaders on gender in workers’ cafes, where workers gather for leisure and learning after working hours.

HERrespect presents an opportunity for responsible companies to ensure all workers in their supply chain have access to a safe and empowering work environment. For more information on how to participate in this program, contact HERproject Manager Elissa Goldenberg (egoldenberg@bsr.org).

We must listen to and support the girls like Malala

Malala

By Dr. Emma Fulu, Technical Lead, What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme

Yesterday, Malala Yousafzai, became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside her co-winner, the Indian children’s right activist Kailash Satyarthi.Today marks the International Day of the Girl Child, and Malala is a girl.

On this day that commemorates the adoption of the UN Resolution (66/170) – see the Executive Director of UN Women’s speech here – which recognises the specific barriers that girls around the world face that inhibit their ability to realise their potential to act in and shape the world around them, Malala is a perfect example for us. She is a girl, yes. But she is not helpless. She is a survivor, not ours to save. She is her own advocate.

Girls globally need our support, and on this day we must ask ourselves what can we do – in our relationships, families, schools, communities and organisations – to help change the world that inhibits young women. But we must also listen because girls are not voiceless and not invisible, they are the force for positive change.

The sad experience that brought Malala to the world’s attention was one of extreme violence, because of her gender, and because she was standing up for others of her gender. Sadly the experience, or constant possibility of violence shapes all womens’ sense of space and place in the world.

Globally 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, many of whom are girls and young women. Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16. Young women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violations during armed conflict, including rape, genital mutilation, forced pregnancy, sexual slavery and enforced prostitution. For women who do not experience violence themselves, they will still grow up in a world that teaches them that they have fewer rights, that they are vulnerable, and that they must take on the responsibility to not dress, talk, walk or act in any way that might put them at risk.

But what if that violence did not occur? What if the girls of the world could grow up with an assumption that they were safe, and free to participate in the world without any fear? How would things change if more girls went on to represent their communities’ needs in political systems? What economic progress would we see if the millions of girls worldwide were able to grow up healthily, able to complete school and fully participate in society? And what could we do with the trillions of dollars that gets spent annually on responding to the health and social costs of violence against women and girls?

It is not a world that only has to be imagined, it is a world that people are actively working to create. More and more people, organisations and governments are actively developing and implementing policies and programmes to address the underlying causes of violence. They are working to change the way boys and men are taught to express their masculinity through force, to support children who have experienced violence to make other choices for their futures, and to promote women’s empowerment in every sphere of life.

I have been working in this field for over a decade and most of my friends and colleagues for many more years that that. We have seen incremental changes and examples of success. But at this historic moment in time, there is a buzz and a sense of real excitement that we have reached a tipping point that has an unparalleled possibility to change the size of the problem. The issue of violence against women and girls has become highly visible in the mainstream media, people are talking about it openly in public spaces and governments have put it on the top of their agendas. In November of last year, DFID launched the What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls Global Programme, a £25 million global research and innovation programme to build our knowledge and support programmes to stop violence against women and girls from occurring.

It is not just the size of this programme – one of the biggest ever investments to try to better understand and respond to this problem – that marks it as a tipping point. It is also that the programme has received such support and interest from a vast range of researchers, activist, community organisations, policymakers and decision makers. At the launch of the Global Programme, at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London, hoards of people crowded around the entrance trying to get into the already packed auditorium and speakers had to be set up outside to accommodate the level of interest from people who were willing to stand to learn more about this flagship programme.

There has been a shift. People have recognised that we must change the way we see and address the problem of violence against women and girls. While we continue to respond to the problem and support survivors, we must actively work to reduce the size of the problem to start with. I am truly excited to be a part of this programme that is supporting innovative violence prevention programmes and conducting cutting-edge research to considerably advance our understanding of what works to prevent violence.

I genuinely believe that this is a major step towards creating the type of world where all girls are able to grow up safe, respected and empowered.