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Ending gender-based violence against women garment workers

by Sangeeta Chowdhry and Brandee Butler | Global Fund for Women
Wednesday, 19 July 2017 15:09 GMT

Relatives of victims killed in the collapse of Rana Plaza hold pictures on the first year anniversary of the accident, as they gather in Savar April 24, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If eliminating gender-based violence in the garment industry sounds like an ambitious goal, it’s because it is

Four years ago, the collapse of the Rana Plaza Building killed more than a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh. Most of the workers in the building were young women in their teens and early twenties. Many had recently migrated from the countryside to seek work in the factories, yearning for a good job and a better life.

The tragedy, like others before it, was sadly foreseeable. The building’s owners and local authorities long knew about its hazardous construction and overcrowding. Global outrage after the disaster led to some progress in building codes and safety standards, yet the daily working conditions of women garment workers today remain much the same.

The truth is, fire hazards or building standards are not the most pervasive risk to women’s safety. The most insidious threat to the women who make up over two-thirds of the industry’s workforce is gender-based violence. Deeply ingrained in culture and economics, the sexual harassment and abuse—physical and emotional—that women workers experience every day is extensive and seemingly impossible to uproot. It remains invisible to many, and tolerated by those who view violence against women as a normal part of life.

But a new initiative, led by women garment workers and bringing together a broad range of actors and influencers, aims to create environments in which women are free from sexual harassment and sexual violence in places where they work and live. C&A Foundation, Global Fund for Women, NoVo Foundation, and Gender at Work recently launched a three-year program to eliminate gender-based violence in the garment industry.

If that sounds like an ambitious goal, it’s because it is.

The Asian garment industry employs an estimated 55 million women, comprising roughly eighty percent of the total workforce. A number of studies on the prevalence of gender-based violence in the garment supply chain reveal the depth of the problem: In Bangladesh, 75 percent of women garment workers said they had experienced verbal abuse, and 20 percent physical abuse. In India, 60 percent of female factory workers reported experiencing some type of harassment, and in Cambodia, half the women workers surveyed had suffered verbal abuse from supervisors and managers (Fair Wear Foundation, 2013).

While many governments have passed laws to address the problem, enforcement and compliance lag far behind. Unionization is low and often repressed, and few women hold leadership positions in unions. Factory owners and managers get away with crimes of violence against women due to a combination of factors: cultures that accept abusive behavior as normal, legal systems that fail to punish, and low rates of reporting. The stigma of experiencing sexual harassment by employers and fear of losing their jobs often discourages women from reporting abuses.

At times, governments may overlook abuses in the drive to maintain the foreign investment from the lucrative garment industry fueling their economies. In Bangladesh, the garment industry accounts for $28 billion each year, and there are some 6,000 factories spread throughout the country. The Indian garment sector contributes 11 percent to India’s exports and over 5 percent to the gross domestic product. Throughout the region, the world’s most well-known brands churn out production in tens of thousands of small shops.

The constant pressure for new fashion trends keeps clothes flying off the racks in wealthy countries and sewing machines humming in developing ones. Across Asia, many women garment workers are young women who migrate from rural areas to work in these factories. Isolated from families and traditional support networks, these young women are particularly vulnerable to violence at work and in places they live, and often do not know their rights let alone how to access them.

Gender-based violence, or the threat of it, is a way to control women workers in the factories and a functional part of this system of structural inequalities. Against a formidable set of obstacles, smart solutions forged by women workers and their allies give great hope. 

The primary agents of change are, and must be women garment workers themselves. That is why our new initiative focuses on bolstering leadership skills and strengthening women garment workers’ movements in four major garment-producing countries in Asia.

Over the years, we’ve learned the importance of engaging with a wide variety of stakeholders and influencers, including those sometimes left out of change strategies for eliminating violence against women, like trade unions, retailers, brands, employers, donors, government officials, and community leaders. Our initiative partners will build new alliances, broadening the range of actors involved in reaching our goals.

Addressing gender-based violence in the garment industry will require a holistic approach — simultaneously addressing workplace conditions, social norms, and legal frameworks and enforcement. Media and advocacy campaigns also have a powerful role to play. Starting with a core group of factories in a few countries, we can elicit lessons of successful approaches that can be shared with many more.

The power of women to change their own lives has been proven time and time again. Empowering women garment workers and surrounding them with a strong network of allies can significantly reduce and even end gender-based violence in the workplace. The Asian garment industry could be the next historic example of the deep transformation that happens when women—and men—stand up together.

Sangeeta Chowdhry is the Program Director for Economic and Political Empowerment at Global Fund for Women. Brandee Butler is C&A Foundation’s Head of Gender Justice and Human Rights.