Creating a Safe Space for Women’s Economic Empowerment

April 10, 2014
  • Jessica Davis Pluess

    Former Manager, BSR

Jessica Davis Pluess, Manager, Partnership Development and Research, BSR

Over the last month, we’ve been celebrating the progress the world has made in promoting rights and opportunities for women. While much work remains, women now account for 40 percent of the global labor force and are at the helm of major organizations and companies, including the International Monetary Fund and PepsiCo. Through BSR's HERproject, we've contributed to this progress by helping improve the lives of 250,000 women in more than 200 factories and farms in 10 countries.

We believe that formal wage employment offers women significant opportunities to become active participants in the economy and society, gain financial independence and confidence, and contribute to improved well-being in households and communities, as well as a thriving and inclusive global economy.

But it isn’t enough.

It isn’t enough for a woman to make a formal wage, only to find that her husband resents her newfound independence and uses violence to express his frustration. It isn’t enough for a woman to raise her voice on issues that matter to her in the workplace but to be silenced and marginalized in community decision-making. It isn’t enough for a woman to see health and safety promoted in the workplace but fear for her personal safety on her route home.

With these gaps in mind, BSR conducted a review of studies and programs that promote gender equality and prevent discrimination and gender-based violence in and out of the workplace. The review, which was supported by the Levi Strauss Foundation and builds on BSR’s commitment to support women in global supply chains, set out to understand how to address the challenges holding back progress on women’s economic empowerment, particularly gender-based violence. We also sought to determine if BSR, and our network of members, could contribute to progress through our work in global supply chains.

A few important findings emerged from our research:

1. Violence against women is the most persistent violation of human rights, and it cuts across countries and classes. While poverty is often seen as a contributing factor, gender-based violence doesn’t simply disappear when an economy grows and women are engaged in the labor force. The World Health Organization estimates that one in three women worldwide experiences gender-based violence in her life. Bangladesh faces one of the highest rates of domestic violence worldwide, with nearly one in two women estimated to experience physical violence at home. 

Gender-based violence also exists in the workplace. Approximately 60 percent of factory workers in India and Bangladesh have experienced harassment, verbal abuse, or physical abuse at work, according to the Fair Wear Foundation and in a study in Kenya, more than 90 percent of workers in export-processing industries had experienced or observed sexual harassment or abuse. 

2. Gender-based violence negatively affects businesses and economies. Lost productivity due to domestic violence costs an estimated 2 percent of GDP. One comprehensive study in Vietnam found that due to lost productivity, women who are abused earn 35 percent less than those who are not. This does not include significant out-of-pocket expenditures, such as medical treatment and police, legal, and counseling support.

Gender-based violence both inside and outside the workplace has significant impacts on women’s ability to achieve their potential at work. It adversely affects women’s health, which leads to higher levels of absenteeism from work. It also impedes skills development and professional advancement and limits women’s willingness to voice concerns across a variety of issues. Moreover, gender-based violence tends to be transmitted across generations, perpetuating its damaging effects.

3. Prevention requires tackling root causes, engaging men, and applying multiple interventions. Partners for Prevention, a joint UN program in the Asia-Pacific region, argues that the causes of gender-based violence are multifaceted, and shift across time, settings, and social levels. Prevention therefore requires multiple, coordinated actions tailored to local contexts. These interventions must also involve men, who are critical in tackling underlying drivers of violence, such as deep-rooted social norms and workplace power dynamics, which perpetuate the view that women are second-class citizens. 

Companies have the ability to address key root causes, and some of our peers, such as Better Work, Verité, and the Fair Wear Foundation, are engaging with supply chain actors to tackle these issues through training, providing women with access to services, workplace committees, and buyer purchasing policies, among other programs.

Based on our research, the workplace can incubate dialogue and solutions to tackle underlying issues around gender-based violence, but they need to be coupled with interventions in communities that include both men and women. Examples of organizations doing this work in communities include Tostan, UNICEF, and the government of Senegal, which have been conducting informal education in communities about female genital mutilation and encouraging public community declarations to abandon the deep-seated practice.

We must continue to celebrate our achievements in advancing women’s economic empowerment—without losing sight of the challenges that remain. Business and partners, including BSR, must ask tough questions: How can formal employment be a force for positive change both inside and outside the workplace? How can we protect women as greater economic independence shifts traditional gender norms? How can we engage men in promoting gender equality? And what are we doing to mitigate risks to women?

In the coming months, BSR will strengthen our efforts to help companies promote positive gender relations by using the workplace as an entry point for dialogue and access to critical services that both prevent and address sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

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