The Future of Women’s Empowerment in Global Supply Chains

March 6, 2014
  • Eva Dienel

    Former Associate Director, Communications, BSR

  • Racheal Meiers

    Former Director, BSR

In the past several years, BSR’s HERproject has grown dramatically, from a small pilot project in four Chinese factories to a program today that has reached more than 250,000 female workers in more than 200 factories and farms in 10 countries. What started as a peer-to-peer health-education program for women working in the factories of global apparel brands is now a large-scale women’s empowerment initiative with programs focused on increasing access to information and services on women’s health and finance. 

Given the growth of the program, we took a moment to catch up with HERproject Director Racheal Meiers about how far the program has come, where it’s going, and why HERproject is being rebranded as the umbrella initiative for the HERhealth and HERfinance programs.

Tell us about the launch of HERproject—where did the idea come from?

In 2006, BSR conducted a study in partnership with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation that documented the health vulnerabilities of female factory workers in Asia and Central America. We found that these women, many young and undereducated migrants who had moved from rural areas to cities for jobs, were suffering from anemia, poor hygiene, inadequate pre- and post-natal care, sexual violence, and exposure to infections and illness, including sexually transmitted and other preventable diseases like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, and tuberculosis. Worse still, the very community organizations equipped to help these women couldn’t manage to reach them—factory gates and dormitories were barred, working hours were long, and the communities of migrant workers were otherwise disparate and difficult to locate.

This was all bad news, but out of it came a great idea. In 2007, BSR launched HERproject to help meet the needs of these women by coming to them, in their places of work, with programs aimed at improving women’s health awareness and access to health services. We served as the mediator between a set of actors that didn’t trust each other or know how to work together effectively.

Describe the HERproject model.

It’s collaborative at all levels: Participating buyers nominate and sponsor supplier factories and farms, and promote the business and reputational benefits of the program to encourage participation.  Factories and farms designate space for trainings, help identify female employees (line workers) to serve as peer health educators, and adapt production and workday schedules to allow time for trainings. Local NGOs train peer educators and act as mentors throughout the program, to the women, to factory clinic staff, and to factory management. Finally, peer educators have the biggest job of all—learning to question the harmful health ideas and behaviors they’ve been taught, and then sharing the correct information with their colleagues, families, and friends through their professional and personal networks.

How did you get all of the various actors to collaborate?

The key was to clearly define the roles and the objectives of each participant. It sounds simple but it’s deceptively complex: Success requires true commitment from all actors, the emergence of compelling and persuasive leaders among the peer educators, and effective project management by implementing NGOs. BSR’s job is to control the simplicity and manage the complexity, and to spread the message of HERproject’s value throughout our global network of companies committed to promoting more inclusive economies along their supply chains.

How would you characterize the success of HERproject?

What began as an experiment at four factories in China proved successful in more ways than we first expected. Today, we have 32 multinational company partners, more than 200 factory and farm partners, and 20 local NGO partners across the 10 countries where our programs are running. Through these partnerships, we have improved the well-being, confidence, and economic potential of more than 250,000 working women, and contributed to better health behavior and outcomes for countless family members and friends.

Our program reviews and interviews show that, on average, 80 percent of HERproject participants share the information they learn with family and friends, and many of our peer educators go beyond that, holding community gatherings in their homes, mosques, temples, and local clinics. This, in turn, helps them become even more powerful contributors to their communities and their national economies. For example, two peer educators, Shahanaz from Bangladesh and Liu Guofeng in China, have used their new knowledge to teach their daughters and classmates how to have better reproductive health. Both women expressed gratitude for the opportunity to give their girls better lives through better health and less fear of their bodies.

What kind of challenges have you experienced as HERproject has grown?

Every workplace program HERproject runs faces some challenges. The nature of our program requires an immediate-term loss in productivity to support a longer-term gain, which means factory management must take some risk in support of the work.

We’ve also struggled to balance supply and demand. In some countries, we have many companies pushing to start new programs, and our partner NGOs struggle to keep up; at other times, we face the opposite challenge, with highly capable NGOs whose resource capacities exceed the current demand. Maintaining that balance requires constant engagement with both groups of partners, as well as ongoing capacity-building to ensure that partners develop diverse business models to withstand revenue variations.

Finally, we struggle with monitoring and evaluation. Due to the complex nature of our program, we collect almost too much data: Baseline and end-line surveys in every facility where we work, and ongoing interviews with factory management, human resources, medical staff, and NGO partners. With this wealth of information, it can be difficult to ensure consistency across all the countries where we work, and we have occasionally fallen short in effectively using technology to streamline our data collection and reporting processes. We’re working to improve through a variety of efforts this year.

Speaking of efforts for this year, what’s new for HERproject?

In 2012, we received a grant from the Walt Disney Company to start HERfinance, a program that applies the HERproject methodology to build the financial capabilities of low-income workers and connect them to appropriate financial services.

Through this effort, and the continued success of our health program, HERproject has become the leading public-private partnership initiative for women’s empowerment along global supply chains. Working together with our partners and funders, we are excited to continue growing HERproject over the coming years.

Recently, we found ourselves with the happy problem of having to rebrand to accommodate a growing program: Going forward, HERproject will serve as BSR’s umbrella initiative for all of our women’s empowerment and gender-equality work, including HERfinance and the newly renamed “HERhealth.”

We have an exciting year ahead for HERhealth. In particular, we’ll be scaling our activities in Bangladesh’s ready-made-garment and Kenya’s floriculture industries, working to make women’s health and empowerment core priorities of responsible business in those sectors. We’ll be launching new partnerships with Dfid’s Trade in Global Value Chains Initiative, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

We’re also proud to be a part of growing commitments by our corporate partners, including the announcement this week by ANN Inc. that the company will reach 100,000 women in its supply chains with HERhealth and HERfinance programs by 2018.

Tell us about your own involvement with HERproject over the years. What have you learned?

My journey at BSR began with HERproject, and my career has largely tracked in parallel with the initiative. I joined BSR in 2007 with a bright idealism about the role business could play in global challenges, layered above a youthful cynicism that governments and civil society were struggling to achieve progress against poverty and inequity. If engaged rationally and with integrity, I believed that global business could help move the needle on critical development and human rights issues like health, gender equality, empowerment, and justice.

Nearly seven years later, I still think business is the missing link in many development efforts, and that the women working in our global supply chains are neglected and critical agents of change for achieving gender equity. Our large and growing network of partners invests in these women not because of their vulnerability, but because of their potential. Women like Shahanaz and Liu Guofeng are going to create positive futures for themselves and their daughters—and they are imperative to helping us realize the global women’s empowerment agenda.

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