Women’s rights and corporate abuses: Waiting for Godot?

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Thousands of women march past the parliament during a 'March for Women' in London, Britain, 04 March 2018. Thousands of people marched ahead of the International Women's Day calling for gender equality. International Women's Day is annually celebrated on 08 March. [EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN]

Nearly two centuries have passed since the famous New York women’s march. Today, women and society itself, need policy-makers that live up to their obligations, make business enterprises respect human rights, and grant victims of abuses access to justice, write Claudia Saller and Adriana Espinosa.

By Claudia Saller and Adriana Espinosa, European Coalition for Corporate Justice.

On 8th March 1857, fifteen thousand women garment workers rallied in New York in protest of working conditions, low wages, and inequality. On 24th April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed killing more than one thousand garment workers, mostly women.  

These two episodes are connected by a story of women’s struggle for recognition of their dignity. A recognition that means respect for their integrity, and equality not only on paper but in practice. Ultimately, this International Women’s Day marks more than 160 years of women’s quest for the full respect of their inalienable human rights.

Let’s try an exercise. Let’s ask ourselves why, whilst the word “feminism” is becoming mainstream and institutions have embraced the equality discourse, we still wake up with headlines of women and girls toiling in slave-like conditions producing for European brands, of female human rights defenders killed for protecting nature from corporate greed; and a very long etcetera.

The need for a gender lens on corporate human rights abuses

Sure, corporate abuses affect women and men, children and adults. But let’s face it; women experience these abuses in unique and disproportionate ways. Verbal and sexual harassment, discrimination, or the absence of minimum hygienic conditions are “business as usual” in global supply chains employing women, especially in the so-called “feminised sectors” such as the garment or the electronic industries.

Moreover, corporate impacts on women are structural, and this has to do with entrenched discrimination, endemic inequality (poverty has a female face), and inhibiting gender roles. These factors exacerbate gender-specific abuses, which also tend to go unnoticed because society has normalised those patriarchal structures.

Finally, these social structures also impact the aftermath of the abuse itself. As recognized by international organisations, women face additional barriers in accessing justice in general, and specifically in relation to corporate abuses.

Women at the forefront of resistance

But the story of women’s rights is not merely one of the victims, much less a tale of fragile creatures in helpless need of an external rescuer. Throughout history, women have been ready to stand up for their rights, the rights of their families and their communities. They lead the fight for reproductive and sexual rights (including LGTB rights), and the defence of the environment from corporate exploitation.

The price for this activism is of course generously paid. More than half of the women included in a 2017 tribute to female activists have been murdered. On top of the abuses that affect human rights defenders in general, women face specific forms of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, stigmatisation, and sexist defamation. These women face, and challenge, multiple layers of oppression.

Time for rules to make business respect human rights

The Rana Plaza tragedy was a wake-up call. It shed light on the rampant human rights abuses that take place all along global corporate structures and supply chains. The scandal soon became the textbook illustration of how the absence of well-defined and enforceable rules leads to appalling human rights abuses by companies, to the impunity of perpetrators, and the helplessness of their victims.

History shows that women are strong enough to vindicate their rights. Women don’t need and don’t call for governments to act for the sake of paternalism, or pity.

What women, and society itself, need are policy-makers that live up to their obligations, make business enterprises respect human rights, and grant victims of abuses access to justice.

Nearly two centuries have passed since the famous New York women’s march. Some European States such as France have started to move in the right direction. We cannot wait for another hundred years to see binding rules that simply oblige companies to do the right thing: to respect and not to abuse the rights of others.