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Posted at: Mar 7, 2018, 12:34 AM; last updated: Mar 7, 2018, 12:34 AM (IST)INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY

She too for #MeToo

Women workers in apparel and informal sectors in India need #MeToomovement

Anisha Rajapakse

This year, International Women's Day reinforces the tidal wave for women's rights, equality and justice stemming from the #MeToo movement of 2017. Ending sexual harassment, violence and discrimination against women takes centre stage as headlines and public discourse seeks to transform this momentum to empower and protect women in all settings. How can we sustain this positive global wave to protect some of the most vulnerable and voiceless women in India from sexual harassment and violence in less visible in places such as garment factories and in other informal sectors who are as important as the high-profile cases involving Hollywood, the media, and political figures.

Words have the force to change our reality. In many ways, last year was a defining year for exposing sexual harassment in the workplace, as thousands of women around the world took social media by storm with the hash tag #MeToo following the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. This movement is helping to combat the shame that silences victims and protects abusers whilst demanding change. For the first time, there is a global outcry and acknowledgement that sexual harassment and violence is simply unacceptable.

In India, the textiles and garment sectors are the second largest employer after agriculture. Women workers constitute the largest proportion of the 45 million people employed in these sectors. They are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs at the lowest tiers of the supply chain and are subject to the worst kinds of abuses. A root cause of this is the power imbalance. A majority of workers are women while the middle and senior management are disproportionately male. A 2016 study by the NGO, Sisters for Change, found that 60 per cent of women factory workers suffered verbal, physical or sexual violence. The statistics from this report also revealed that 14 per cent of women garment workers have been raped or forced to commit a sexual act. Women who suffer such abuses often find that there is no outlet to report them. In the same report, 75 per cent said there is no functioning complaints procedure in their factory for punishing cases of sexual harassment or violence. As many as 82 per cent said they did not tell anyone about the sexual harassment or abuse they suffered.

Sexual harassment is about domination, control, power and misogyny, and the overwhelming majority of sexual harassment in factories take the form of transgressions by men against women. The incidents are not related to just one supply chain, but numerous and multiple supply chains. Unless concerted and systemic preventive measures are implemented with the buy-in of the top management in the companies, positive change will not be possible. 

Tepid uptake and implementation

Despite India's legislation on sexual harassment at work, knowledge and implementation of the law is lagging. Last year at a consultation in India for over 100 Indian apparel suppliers led by a Europe-based business association, the question was asked about how many were aware of the law in India about sexual harassment in the workplace. Alarmingly, only five hands were raised.  It is clear that there has to be a cultural shift and a breakaway from 'business as usual'. A change in mindsets and interventions that can bring about positive behavioural change are critical to ensure effective implementation of the law and to instil confidence among the victims.The reality is that law alone cannot transform a society. It takes a collective social responsibility to teach every boy and every man on how to honour and respect every girl and woman.

Collective responsibility

Many go so far as to say that the entire Indian society is built on systems of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and rape culture, and that there is so much unlearning to do. Therefore, the very first step is acknowledging the issues and the collective responsibility that each person should bear. Lack of structured human resource policies, low levels of trade union representation and limited awareness about sexual harassment especially in the lowest tiers/informal sectors of Indian supply chains are areas that need particular attention. 

Taking up the challenge

Tackling these problems requires appropriate law enforcement systems, effective social dialogue, better awareness among employers, practical workplace initiatives, and strategies to reach and give voice to those women workers who are most affected and remain invisible to most.

Empowerment initiatives need to be long term and sustained. Some companies have been observed to implement a "zero-tolerance" policy, where first offense of sexual harassment results in immediate termination of the harasser. This practice could easily be replicated. 

Furthermore, many companies miss the mark on providing effective sexual harassment training. The most successful sexual harassment training strives for culture change, not just compliance. As more accountability becomes visible, more women will feel comfortable coming forward and there will be a shift of power away from men who have been getting away with harassment for so long. 

Sadly, over the years, most global supply chains have profited from the plight of vulnerable women workers in Indian supply chains. These workers are from impoverished families, with little or no literacy skills most of whom have migrated from rural areas as main breadwinners for their families. To keep their jobs and given their sheer desperation for employment they are compelled to endure harassment. Apparel brands also have a responsibility to prevent human rights abuses throughout their supply chains together with their producers and stakeholders in India by investing in targeted and strategic training programmes for supplier factories to prevent and respond to workplace sexual harassment.

Brands could, together with the Indian suppliers, adopt strategies to enhance and facilitate workers' ability to bargain collectively for better working conditions, and to promote more stable employment.  Full commitment to gender equality in its supplier factories to move beyond rhetoric to eradicate sexual harassment and abuse of women workers will have an escalating effect. Indian companies are often more compliant when the brands they supply to are strict regarding their policy to prevent and end sexual harassment. While effective remedies require legal frameworks and explicit organisational provision, they must also change organisational culture and protect those who speak out about abuse.

There is cause for optimism for the future. Globally, there is renewed focus and attention on ending sexual harassment and abuse. The media is on a high alert on supply chain transparency and the various international frameworks and guidance for businesses including the UN Guiding Principles call on businesses to demonstrate their responsibility to go beyond 'doing no harm' by addressing issues through due diligence processes that safeguard the rights of women workers in their supply chains. The need to 'walk the talk' with the inclusion of women not just as victims of rights violations but as decision-makers and agents of change is a must. A safe and improved workplace climate for women impacts positively on productivity and can effect real change in the Indian textiles and garment sector and the lives of women who are its backbone.

As we mark 2018 International Women's Day, it is important to re-emphasise the power of multi-stakeholder partnerships and collaborations to end sexual harassment and abuse of women in Indian supply chains. Collective voices focusing on intentional action and a sense of shared responsibility can turn the tide and reinforce the message that'women's rights are human rights'.

— Writer is the Strategy Advisor - Social Sustainability Global Corporate Sustainability (pvt) Ltd.


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