Women’s Empowerment in the Era of Social Distancing

February 10, 2021
  • Margaux Yost

    Former Manager, HERproject, BSR

  • Jessica Witten portrait

    Jessica Witten

    Manager, Human Rights , BSR

  • Isadora Loreto portrait

    Isadora Loreto

    Manager, RISE, BSR

Approximately 190 million women are employed in global supply chains, yet many are in precarious positions. Low literacy and tech literacy levels, among other factors, relegate women to lower paying jobs with minimal rights protections, making them particularly vulnerable. Since 2007, BSR collaborative initiative HERproject has sought to change this and empower women workers through workplace-based interventions on health, financial inclusion, and gender equality.

Over the years, HERproject has worked in more than 620 workplaces across 14 countries. And yet in 2020—as COVID-19 and its economic impacts have exacerbated gender inequalities—health and safety precautions prevented HERproject programs from continuing in the farms and factories where they have traditionally taken place.

Against this backdrop, we developed HERessentials—a new HERproject program leveraging digital tools to reach workers, particularly women, to build their adaptive capacity and resilience in the face of crisis. HERessentials engages workers in a safe and socially distant way and provides workers and managers access to trainings and important resources on stress management, communication, health, and finance topics through a tablet. Furthermore, it is designed to increase workers’ digital and tech literacy while also heightening resilience in an increasingly technological world of work. The offering puts technology in the hands of low-income women with low tech skills all while empowering suppliers to take ownership of worker trainings on essential topics. 

HERessentials is incorporated in workplaces via content downloaded onto tablets, ensuring access and collecting data offline, and workplace management is supported by local HERproject implementing partners to ensure sustainable ownership of the program.

Although HERessentials started as a response to the COVID-19 crisis and recovery in supply chains, it will have longevity. The content aims to provide workers with valuable trainings that, while important before, have become much more pressing given the COVID-19 crisis.

“I have financial issues because my salary can hardly sustain the family. My husband lost his job due to COVID-19, and this has affected the family both financially and emotionally. There have been increased arguments in the family.”

- Female Worker, Kenya

COVID-19’s Consequences for Women in Global Value Chains

The COVID-19-fueled economic crisis has made vulnerable women workers even more exposed to job insecurity and diminished protections of worker rights.

The consequences of this have been manifold: Workers have been facing increased reliance on credit, notable upticks in violence at home and at the workplace, and reduced health-seeking tendencies due to concerns around COVID-19. Such challenges are formidable and can seem especially difficult to tackle in times of social distancing and restrictions on movement that reduce access to local services and support.

At the onset of the crisis, factories halted production for long periods, and when they were finally able to reopen, they did so with limited capacity given budget cuts and adaptations for social distancing.  HERproject recently published a report illustrating that these impacts are occurring in real time. For example, it was reported that in Bangladesh, women taking loans increased by 15 percent, while the percentage of men who borrowed nearly doubled in order to make ends meet. Furthermore, in Kenya, 54 percent of female and 49 percent of male respondents reported noticing an increase of violence against women around them.

Closing the Digital Gender Gap

In light of these issues, empowering women workers through information dissemination and capacity building is crucial. In a time where in-person engagement is limited, digital tools like HERessentials can be leveraged to strengthen workplace support for workers as well as develop women workers’ resilience.

A gender divide currently exists in digital literacy and access. However, closing the digital gender gap has the potential to reduce inequalities, empower women, and shore up their skills. By increasing workers’ skills and versatility in the workforce, in addition to providing access to key information, digital tools like those used in HERessentials have the potential to strengthen women’s awareness and capacity.

Digital tools are not the panacea to women workers’ vulnerabilities in global supply chains, but they can have an impact on empowering women with information and skills to strengthen their resilience especially in times where traditional in-person methods are restricted. COVID-19 was the catalyst for the creation of HERessentials, but its design has been centered around a long-term view of sustainability and capacity building.

Digital Learning for a More Just, Sustainable Future

We recently began implementing HERessentials in garment factories in Bangladesh, and in the coming months, we will adapt and roll out the program in India, Pakistan, Costa Rica, and Honduras, with a view to future expansion in Myanmar, Cambodia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. While there is much more learning to do on how to make digital learning as effective and impactful as possible, this is a positive step toward putting tools and resources in the hands of women workers.

HERproject looks forward to continuing to work with global brands, their suppliers, and local NGOs to bring vital empowerment programs to women across the globe. To learn more about our work, please reach out to connect with our team.

Collaborative Initiatives

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

Contact Us