Time to combat corporate abuse of women´s human rights
Gunhild Ørstavik from FOKUS held an intervention at The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva in November. Photo: Bente Bjercke.

Publisert: 18.12.2017    Redigert: 08.08.2018

The annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights takes stock of progress made on implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in the UN-member states.

In the many side-events there are discussions on the effectiveness of existing mechanisms and the need to develop new and more binding regulations of the governments, investors and producers.  This year more than 2000 people participated at the Forum.

The central theme was “Realizing Access to Effective Remedy”. The on-going work on business and Human Rights has to a large extent been gender-blind. Fortunately, this is a about to change. This year gender and the unique risks investments can pose to women´s human rights were clearly present on the agenda.

Following the Forum, the UN working group on Business and Human Rights invited to a full day round- table on the 30th November to discuss the need to apply a gender-lens to the topic.

Gunhild Ørstavik from FOKUS held the following intervention:

I have worked on business and HR issues for many years. After moving to a woman´s organization it has been a chock to discover that while we have looked at the unique vulnerability of indigenous peoples, children and workers, we have by large ignored the gender perspective while developing the UNGPS, the OECD GL etc. Nor has gender been much part of the national and international BHR discourse.

But finally, things are moving. There has been a large improvement at this Forum compared to previous years. Gender has been so much more on the agenda in many of the sessions I have just attended. The stories from indigenous survivors of corporate related abuse in the Americas have made a particularly strong impression on me, and I miss them around this table. It is a big shame if their absence is due to lack of Spanish translation.

The inclusion of gender is overdue, and we have to rush to catch up. We have to rush to ensure that women´s human rights are included when companies do their due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and remediate HR risks and violations.

Over the last days we have heard the stories of how women and young girls are victims to all sorts of gender based abuse and violence, with long- and short-term effects, including: trafficking and slavery, physical and mental health problems, increased poverty, unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions, early school drop-out, inability to adequately protect and provide for their children, shame and social stigma, increased risk of  further harassment.

We have heard of dismissals of pregnant women, miscarriages and birth defects due to harmful work and long working hours, exclusion from decision-making processes and consultation, exclusion from compensation, wage discrimination, limited promotion opportunities, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination at the workplace. And I could go on and on…

Despite all of this the UNGPs are not taking into account the most salient risks for 50 % of the world´s population. The framework makes only one brief reference to the unique Human Rights risks that women face. The same lack of a gender perspective goes for the only governmental, non-judicial grievance mechanism, the OECD Guidelines for multinational enterprises. As far as I know alleged breaches of CEDAW has not been assessed in any of the more than 400 complaints that have been filed in the different national contact points over the years. Although CEDAW is a universally recognized HR instrument.

So now, what do we do to get up to speed?

First we need to find ways to ensure that investors do a gender impact assessment and respond to gender specific needs. Among them:

  • map the legal, socio-cultural and political context of women´s human rights in the respective market of the current operation,
  • ensure women´s equal and meaningful participation in consultations, regardless of their class, ethnicity, and marital status, by e.g. offering separate spaces / separate meetings for women,
  • ensure that women benefit equitably from compensation payments and other forms of restitution.

The results should be made publicly available and be a prerequisite for support from export credit agencies and lenders such as the World Bank, and before any MNE can benefit from the large variety of other governmental supporting and promoting tools.

Secondly, we need to develop effective and user-friendly tools to integrate gender and women´s human rights in the due diligence that investors are expected to conduct prior to the investment. It should not be an add-on, but an integrated part of what the “best in class” enterprises and investors already do. We should of course also make non-financial due diligence mandatory as France just did.

Thirdly, we should file tons of complaints based on the OECD GL mechanism, (its HR chapter is compatible with the UNGP) with a specific gendered focus and with clear references to CEDAW. The Guidelines apply to most MNEs.

In collaboration with FIDA, our Ugandan partner we recently hosted a workshop in Uganda to share our experiences from filing complaints and discuss the possibilities that lies in the Guidelines and its grievance mechanism. I hope we will be able to discuss this as a strategy more in-depth in course of todays discussion. Because the abuses of women´s human rights that we cannot prevent, we have to remediate. By doing so they will become public and ultimately contribute to identification and prevention.

Last, but not least, we have to identify not only the companies that continue to violate women´s human rights, but also those that seriously work to include and apply a gender lens. We need to find areas where we can collaborate. We will be busy in the years to come because we have to be on all arenas where B& HR are discussed, and all areas where women´s rights are discussed to make the necessary linkages.  



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