Global Clothing Brands Should Respond to the #MeToo Mandate

Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

By Aruna Kashyap
Nov 24 2019 – It has been two years since #MeToo went viral, and it’s about time the garment industry’s sexual harassment problem got the attention it deserves. Clothing and footwear brands can do much more to prevent and address gender-based violence in their supply chains, but first they need to confront how badly their inspection or “social auditing” programs fail women.  

Clothing brands or factories often bring in social auditors to examine factory working conditions. But social audits primarily rely on in-factory interviews with workers who may fear retaliation, often leaving them  ineffective for detecting workplace sexual harassment.

In fact,  many auditors I have spoken to have offered useful insights about the limitations of audits. Recently, I spoke to an Indonesian social auditor who shared an anecdote about a garment factory he was inspecting in central Java a couple of years ago. He found a notebook on the factory production floor, and within its pages discovered a woman worker’s anonymous note suggesting she was being sexually harassed.

Clothing and footwear brands can do much more to prevent and address gender-based violence in their supply chains, but first they need to confront how badly their inspection or “social auditing” programs fail women

The auditor’s attempts to trace the notebook’s owners and encourage workers to speak up were futile, he said, reflecting his general difficulty with documenting sexual harassment in the industry. Workers he interviewed inside factories usually gave stock or terse responses that he felt factory managers coached them to provide.

On the rare occasions that women workers testified about sexual harassment, he said, factory managers would contest it. They asked him what “proof” he had beyond the complainant’s testimony and demanded to know her name. They argued that one worker’s testimony could not justify a “finding” of workplace sexual harassment in the audit report.

In contrast, women workers who speak outside factory premises feel less anxious about retaliation, according to workers themselves, auditors that Human Rights Watch interviewed, and labor advocates.

For example, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an international labor rights group, found evidence of sexual harassment after conducting off-site interviews with workers for three factories in Lesotho that supplied Levi’s, the Children’s Place, and Kontoor’s. Rola Abirmourched, one of the investigators, reported that despite routine social audits by third parties, sexual harassment in the factories was rampant.

The Lesotho investigation spurred the launch of a promising solution. For over a year, the WRC worked with factory unions and two prominent local women’s rights organizations—the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho, and Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust-Lesotho—to design a program addressing gender-based violence and harassment at work. The factory management signed a legally binding agreement with the unions, committing to implement the program.

The agreement creates an independent investigating body to look into complaints of sexual harassment in accordance with Lesotho’s laws. Levi’s, the Children’s Place, and Kontoor’s agreed to partially fund the program for two years.

This effort imparts some important lessons. For one, involving local women’s rights groups is critical, considering the garment industry’s gender imbalance: the majority of union leadership is male even though the garment workers themselves are predominantly women.

It’s also important to recognize the important role that unions and nongovernmental organizations can play in developing training programs, providing legal services, and facilitating access to counseling for gender-based violence and harassment.

The anti-retaliation protections, the legally binding nature of the program, and support from brands were key to the program’s success, said Libakiso Matlho, national director of Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust-Lesotho. Programs by women’s rights groups to combat sexual harassment are often undercut by factories’ retaliation or failure to hold perpetrators accountable.

Global brands would be smart to take heed of how the Lesotho agreement incorporates key features of the landmark treaty against violence and harassment at work adopted by the International Labour Organization earlier this year. Under the Lesotho agreement, for example, the factories’ policies against gender-based violence and harassment also apply to its suppliers and third-party contractors. The agreement has strong anti-retaliation protections as well.

As garment workers struggle to find dignity at work, global clothing brands should institute strong worker-driven prevention and response programs that bring together credible local women’s rights groups and local unions, instead of depending on social audits. Brands can curb abuse by developing programs that truly empower workers.

Aruna Kashyap is senior counsel in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. 

 

A Staggering One-in-Three Women Experience Physical, Sexual Abuse

Violence against women and girls is among the most widespread, and devastating human rights violations in the world, but much it is often unreported due to impunity, shame and gender inequality

Credit: UN Women

By External Source
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 24 2019 – Violence against women and girls is among the most widespread, and devastating human rights violations in the world, but much it is often unreported due to impunity, shame and gender inequality, the UN highlighted ahead of Monday’s World Day to stamp out abuse of women and girls.

Here is the grim reality, in numbers: A third of all women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, half of women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family, and violence perpetrated against women is as common a cause of death and incapacity for those of reproductive age, as cancer, and a greater cause of ill health than road accidents and malaria combined.

The prevalence of the issue, “means someone around you. A family member, a co-worker, a friend, or even yourself” has experienced this type of abuse, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message to mark the Day.

“Sexual violence against women and girls is rooted in centuries of male domination”, he added, reminding the world that stigma, misconceptions, under-reporting and poor enforcement of laws perpetuate impunity in rape cases.

“All of this must change…now”, the UN chief urged.

 

Damaging flesh, imprinted in memory

A third of all women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, half of women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or family, and violence perpetrated against women is as common a cause of death and incapacity for those of reproductive age, as cancer, and a greater cause of ill health than road accidents and malaria combined

To spotlight the scale of the problem, on this year’s International Day of the Elimination of Violence against Women, the United Nations is sharing the many ways in which the scourge manifests itself in physical, sexual and psychological forms, and the organisation is underscoring the life-altering, adverse consequences women suffer as a result.

  • intimate partner violence (battering, psychological abuse, marital rape, femicide);
  • sexual violence and harassment (rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, cyber- harassment);
  • human trafficking (slavery, sexual exploitation);
  • female genital mutilation
  • child marriage.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, issued by the UN General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”, the UN highlighted on the Day.

Beginning Monday, and for the upcoming two years, the UN chief’s UNiTe to End Violence against Women campaign will focus on the issue of rape as a specific form of harm, encouraging people to join the initiative and “Orange the World.”

UN Women’s Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, expressed her concerns when it comes to rape specifically.

She said the end of the horrendous act would mean eliminating a “significant weapon of war from the arsenal of conflict”, the absence of a daily risk assessment for girls and women who actively work to avoid an incident that could leave them scarred.

“Rape isn’t an isolated brief act. It damages flesh and reverberates in memory. It can have life changing, unchosen results – a pregnancy or a transmitted disease”, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed, adding that consequences of a one-time act can sprawl into damaging long-term effects.

“It’s long-lasting, devastating effects reach others: family, friends, partners and colleagues”, she continued. ­

In addition, research by the World Health Organization (WHO), details disturbing impacts of violence on women’s physical, sexual, reproductive and mental health:

Women who experience physical or sexual abuse are twice as likely to have an abortion, and the experience nearly doubles their likelihood of falling into depression. In some regions, they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV, and evidence exists that sexually assaulted women are 2.3 times more likely to have alcohol disorders.

 

More women abused than not, in US

Some national studies examining incidents in the United States show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and or sexual violence from an intimate partner, according to UN Women.

The agency cited that nearly a quarter of female college students reported having experienced sexual assault or misconduct in the US, but harm targeting women and girls knows no bounds.

Multi-country investigations by WHO show partner violence to be a reality for 65 per cent of women in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and around 40 per cent of women in South Asia, as well as Andean parts of Latin America.

Meanwhile, even in regions where incidents are less likely, as in East Asia and Western Europe, more than 16 per cent and 19 per cent of women have experienced intimate partner violence, respectively.

Psychological violence is another layer to the problem, with some 82 per cent of women parliamentarians in a recent study, reporting having experienced remarks, gestures, threats, or sexist comments while serving – most often via social media.

While gender-based violence can happen to anyone, women who identify with the LGBTI community, migrants and refugees, indigenous minorities, and those living through humanitarian crises, are particularly vulnerable to gender-based harm.

“Almost universally, most perpetrators of rape go unreported or unpunished”, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka explained. “For women to report in the first place requires a great deal of resilience to re-live the attack…In many countries, women know that they are overwhelmingly more likely to be blamed than believed.”

Attacks targeting women continue to be an obstacle to achieving equality, and impede the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to leave no one behind.

Several public events are being coordinated for this year’s International Day to commemorate the fight against gender-based violence, spotlighting rape specifically.

Criminalizing the offense, placing women in positions of power, and strengthening the capacity of law enforcement, are some steps to increase accountability in incidents of sexual assault.

The effects of such violations suppress voices and traumatize, at “an intolerable cost to society”, said Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka.

“No further generations must struggle to cope with a legacy of violation.”

This story was originally published by UN News