Women comprise a large and growing percentage of the global workforce, yet they often work under unhealthy and difficult conditions, including harassment and violence, that are damaging to them, and to their families and communities. In textile, garment and shoe manufacturing, as well as flower farming and tea, coffee, and cocoa processing, women comprise 50 to 80 percent of the workforce. Many of these female workers are underpaid and suffer from pervasive gender discrimination.
A new initiative, under the aegis of the Private Sector Action for Women’s Health & Empowerment, aims to improve the lives of 250,000 working women in 14 countries worldwide. The program was announced at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver in early June. The United Nations Foundation, together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK’s Department for International Development and Merck for Mothers, is leading the program which is being implemented by ten companies with global supply chains employing significant numbers of women.
Specifically, Unilever, Twinings, Nordstrom, Lindex, Shahi, MAS Holdings, Hela Clothing, Inditex, Share Hope, and Ethical Apparel Africa have committed to providing women workers with services and information in areas including contraception, maternal health, menstrual health, reproductive cancer screening, skill building, and anti-harassment programs.
The Women Deliver 2019 Conference—the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women in the 21st century—was an ideal venue for the UN Foundation and the ten participating companies to commit to do better for female workers, and provide them essential health and empowerment information and services.
Investing in women’s health and well-being in the workplace is the right thing to do, and it also makes good business sense. A healthier workforce reduces absenteeism and turnover while increasing productivity, helping the company and the worker. Robyn Russell, Director of Programs and Innovation at the UN Foundation’s Universal Access Project notes, “Companies employing millions of women in their global supply chains have an enormous opportunity to invest in the health and empowerment of their workforce, helping meet women right where they are – in the workplace – with critical information and services, while building a healthier, more productive workforce.”
The program participants have made the following commitments:
• Unilever, informed by the UN Women report “Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces” will invest two million Euros to reduce violence against women and guarantee access to basic health care services for 70,000 people on and around its tea estates in East Africa by 2022.
• Twinings, pledges to reach all of its 75,000 female supply chain farmers in Kenya with HERhealth (a training program on topics ranging from nutrition, sanitation, STI prevention and reproductive health) as well as similar women’s health services for 50,000 workers in Kenya, Malawi and India by 2023.
• Nordstrom, will source 70 percent of all Nordstrom Made products from factories that support women’s empowerment by 2023, and will reach 75,000 workers in Vietnam, India and Bangladesh through programs including HERhealth, HERfinance and HERrespect.
• Inditex (a Spanish multinational clothing company), will expand its Women Empowerment Strategy to reach more than one million female workers with health, protection, and empowerment programs by 2022, including maternity and reproductive health care services for 70,000 women workers by 2022.
• Lindex (a Swedish fashion chain with 480 stores in 18 countries), will ensure that 80 percent of its first-tier suppliers have implemented WE Women (a program to boost gender equality and female employee training) and HERhealth programs reaching 20,000 women workers in India, Pakistan, Turkey, China and Myanmar by 2025.
• Shahi (India’s largest apparel manufacturer), will partner with the Family Planning Association of India to reach 9,000 workers in six of its factories, along with more than 10,000 community members, with women’s health information and services by 2020. The one-year pilot will lead to a wide-scale roll out of such services across more of Shahi’s factories.
• MAS Holdings (South Asia’s largest apparel manufacturer, headquartered in Sri Lanka), will continue its Women Go Beyond program, in partnership with the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka and the UN Population Fund to provide information, services and training in women’s health and well-being to all existing workers, and extend the program to reach an additional 10,000 people, including new recruits and families of workers, by 2021.
• Hela Clothing (a Kenyan garment manufacturer), will implement HERhealth and partner with local women’s health and well-being providers to ensure access to health and empowerment information and services for 10,000 workers, in Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Ethiopia, by 2022.
• Share Hope (a Haitian organization providing fair, safe jobs, and funding life-changing health and education programs for Haitian garment workers), will enroll an additional 4,000 women workers in four Haitian factories in the HERhealth program, and an additional 2,000 in the Gap Inc. P.A.C.E. program—with some workers participating in both programs—reaching a total of 5,000 women workers by 2022.
• Ethical Apparel Africa (a garment sourcing agent in West Africa), will continue to support workforce empowerment and women’s health programs, including family planning and maternal health care, reaching 1,500 women in garment factories in Ghana by 2023.
The 250,000 workers reached by these programs are a small fraction of the millions of women working in difficult conditions worldwide. Still, the support of the UN and other major foundations, as well as some of the world’s leading companies, will make this initiative highly visible, and a model for other corporations, NGOs, and national and international government agencies.