Margaret lives in Kankoyo, a neighbourhood near the city of Mufulira, Zambia. Her home is within 100 metres of a copper mine, owned by a company based in Switzerland. She has never benefitted from the mine. But her family does suffer from frequent rock blasting explosions that terrify her children, air pollution from sulphur-dioxide emissions, spillage from the acid pipes, corroding of her roof and destruction of the surrounding vegetation.
The multinational company that owns the mine told Margaret and her community that it was only concerned with its mining activities and has nothing to do with the housing and infrastructure of the surrounding area. The community cannot afford to take legal action.
International Women’s Day is about celebrating women’s achievements while remembering the multiple barriers that remain in achieving gender equality. One of the major obstacles that women face in the realisation of their rights globally is the abuse and harassment they experience at work and in global supply chains. Margaret’s story is just one of many examples of how corporate human rights abuses impact women.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, where 189 governments agreed the most progressive, international blueprint for advancing women’s rights. But to meet the declaration’s gender equality goals, governments and corporations alike must protect women’s rights in business activities worldwide.
For governments, this means introducing binding obligations on corporations to respect women’s rights throughout supply chains. A vital opportunity for this comes in October when governments will meet in Geneva to negotiate a United Nations treaty that has the potential to amplify worldwide protection of women’s rights, obliging corporations to respect them. Governments, particularly those in the EU and elsewhere that espouse the values of human rights and equality, must lead the way in implementing a strong binding treaty that turns words into real protections for women.
For corporations, this means protecting women’s rights throughout their supply chains by establishing gender-sensitive risk-monitoring, consultation with affected women and their organisations, and ensuring grievance mechanisms are accessible for women.
Many of us will remember the tragic Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 which killed 1,134 people, mostly women and children, who were working long hours in dangerous conditions for just 20 cents per hour for some of the biggest high street brands. And what about Berta Cáceres, the Honduran environmental and women’s rights defender, who was murdered two days before her 45th birthday in 2016? Cáceres was involved in a long battle to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river - a site the Lenca people consider sacred - by the Honduran company DESA and financed by Dutch development bank, FMO.
In global supply chains, women are undervalued and underpaid, and face outrageous levels of rights abuses, violence and harassment. But the corporations responsible often avoid any consequences for their harmful actions. ActionAid’s new report, We Mean Business: Protecting Women’s Rights in Global Supply Chains, finds shocking examples of human rights abuses by multinationals, particularly and detrimentally affecting women.
Like the women in Zambian mining communities, for instance, who have to walk long distances and spend hours in queues to fetch safe water that hasn’t been polluted by acid from extraction, leaving them less time for working, studying and are more exposed to the dangers on the road. Or the 80% of women garment workers in factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh who reported having witnessed sexual harassment and abuse at work. The report shows why it is vital that governments act now to reign in these companies and guarantee that business activities do not harm women’s rights.
Multinationals earn huge profits at the expense of women labouring on the other side of the world, despite the commitments our governments have made to protect their rights and to make gender equality a reality worldwide.
The struggles of these women are not solely the responsibility of the Zambian, Guatemalan and Bangladesh governments. The clothes produced in Bangladesh end up in North American and European stores. The palm oil from Guatemala is exported to many northern hemisphere countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, while the headquarters of mining subsidiaries in Zambia are based in London, Zurich and Sydney.
The good news is that in recent months, the world has seen a wave of governments fulfilling their responsibilities under international law to make sure their corporations respect human rights while carrying out their activities abroad. France kicked things off by introducing legislation asking multinationals to monitor human rights risks in their supply chains and act on them. Other European countries, such as Germany and Finland, quickly followed suit.
A historic International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention to prevent gender-based violence and sexual harassment at work was adopted last summer. Along with the UN’s binding treaty on business and human rights, the moment is now to ensure women and their rights are an integral part of these processes - or we risk adopting laws that leave them behind.
- Kelly Groen is a policy adviser at ActionAid Netherlands.
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