NEW DELHI — In order to eliminate gender-based violence and reinforce the rights of female garment workers, the Global Fund for Women has begun a campaign with C&A Foundation and Gender at Work on behalf of female garment workers in Asia. The three-year-long program, announced on Dec. 16, 2016, hopes to build safe workplaces free of sexual harassment and violence.
Women constitute about 80 percent of the workforce of the international garment industry, and the garment business in Asia is made up of 55 million women. Women are often forced into these roles due to poverty and cultural stereotypes. In India, 60 percent of women garment workers reported suffering from harassment. In Cambodia, half of female workers reported cases of verbal abuse from their employers.
The Global Fund for Women and C&A Foundation hope to collaborate with other donors, trade unions, clothing brands and community leaders to expand their project and become a voice for the voiceless. The clothing industry is globally very lucrative, and as a result, cases of sexual harassment or abuse are often overlooked in favor of the economic benefits of cheap labor. For example, in India, the garment industry makes up 11 percent of exports and more than 5 percent of the nation’s GDP. Women are afraid to speak out against their abusers for fear of losing their jobs and have grown used to an environment where constant harassment is the norm.
Gender discrimination is an overarching problem for many developing countries in Asia, and the harmful effects of sexism trickle down into poorly run factory systems. The Global Fund for Women initiative hopes to spark leadership among female garment workers and encourage them to realize their rights and their power to create change at work and at home.
Another project intending to improve the working and living conditions of women garment workers, particularly in Bangladesh, is the Northern Areas Reduction Poverty Initiative (NARI), which hopes to settle impoverished female workers from Bangladesh’s northwestern districts in safer and healthier factory businesses.
Funded by the World Bank, the NARI program offers training, housing, counseling and other transitional services to impoverished and powerless women looking to relocate to better conditions. The program began in 2011 and is projected to last until the end of 2018.
In 2016, the International Labor Rights Forum published a report entitled Our Voices Our Safety, interviewing women workers in the Bangladesh garment industry. One interviewee, Laboni Akter, senior organizer of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation, describes being abused, harassed and told to leave the neighborhood when she tried to unionize.
Another, Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, reports that “women workers are silenced, in the factories and at home, through violence or the threats of violence… We face sexual harassment. We are told we are worthless; we shouldn’t speak; we shouldn’t be leaders.”
The situation for women in the garment workforce is representative of the life many women in developing countries are forced to live, from the inability to get an education, to unequal pay regulations, to harassment and abuse in the workplace. It is of the utmost importance that their plight does not go unnoticed.
There is much that can be done in the fight for gender equality, safe working conditions for females, and recognized women’s rights in the garment industry. Programs like that of the Global Fund for Women and NARI pave the way for other organizations to follow suit. Popular brands can speak out against the mistreatment, harassment and abuse of women in the garment industry in developing countries.
Helping to ease the hardship of women working in the garment industry will reinforce their right to make their own decisions, to be leaders in their community and to make change in a world which denies them equal rights.
– Charlotte Armstrong