4 ways for the private sector to support women's health

By Carolyn Rodehau 24 May 2016

A factory worker receives medical attention in Sri Lanka. What can companies do to improve both the health and equality of women working in their supply chains? Photo by: M. Crozet / ILO / CC BY-NC-ND

Reflecting on what is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, I am struck by how much work is needed to secure the place of reproductive health in discussions on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

From the United States Chamber of Commerce forum to the U.N. Women and U.N. Global Compact Annual Women’s Empowerment Principles Event, so much of the agenda focuses on supporting and fostering women-owned businesses and entrepreneurship, increasing the representation of women on boards and in the C-suite, and encouraging girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM fields. There is no question that these initiatives are of critical importance.

But what about the unique health needs of women and how addressing these needs contributes to their economic empowerment? Women’s reproductive health and family planning are rarely touted as integral elements of corporate empowerment programs that enable women, particularly the poor, to enter and advance in the formal workforce. However, the links between women’s health and their empowerment are well documented, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

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McKinsey Global Institute’s “The Power of Parity” report, for example, calls for intensified private sector efforts to harness the economic empowerment of women, and recognizes that access to certain health services, specifically family planning and reproductive health, are “essential services and enablers of economic empowerment.”

Traditional ways of engaging the private sector as the providers of funds, know-how and technology are no longer enough.

Companies have a much more integral role especially when it comes to women’s health, gender equity and supply chains. What is this role? It starts with a corporation’s own operations and practices and those of its industry. Corporations create jobs for hundreds and thousands of workers — and millions more indirectly through their supplier companies; for sectors such as the apparel industry, these suppliers are predominantly women.

Aligning operations internally with the SDGs through corporate policies, supplier codes and guidelines, workplace practices and procurement contracts can have positive ripple effects throughout their supply chains, business relationships and more broadly throughout industry. In their supply chains in low- and middle-income countries, companies can be far more proactive in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment by promoting women’s health.

Here are four practical actions companies can take immediately when it comes to improving both the health and equality of the women working in their supply chains.

1. Ensuring access to quality health services.

Companies can do much more to ensure that workers, particularly in their supply chains, have access to health services. Access to health care is often based on the employer’s willingness to provide it, either on-site or via access to providers. This makes the employer the main gatekeeper to health, and companies can provide mobile clinics, referral systems, cooperative agreements with NGO providers, voucher or insurance systems, or provision of transportation and leave time to get off-site facilities.

The Workplace Health Facility Guidelines and Management Benchmarks, developed by the Evidence Project and Business for Social Responsibility’s HERproject, provides management of international brands or retailers and their supplier companies with a set of voluntary guidelines for improving the health and well-being of workers in factories, farms and other workplaces. This resources focus on both the quality of health services provided at the workplace and the adequacy of company policies and management systems to ensure that workers have access to health services.

2. Addressing gender-specific vulnerabilities and unique health needs of women.

Women workers do not have the same health needs as men — a fact only partially recognized by occupational safety and health standards, which provide critical protections against pregnancy tests, chemicals that may damage fertility and sexual harassment and violence. But when women’s broader health needs are not acknowledged, the implications affect both the woman and the workplace. For example, lack of access to water breaks, sanitary bathroom facilities, and menstrual hygiene products put women at risk of urinary tract and gynecological infections, which can harm the company’s productivity. Corporations should ensure that these women’s health needs are addressed in policy and respected in practice.

Principle 3 of the Women’s Empowerment Principles, developed by U.N. Women in partnership with U.N. Global Compact, calls for increased private sector engagement to ensure the health, including sexual and reproductive health, of all workers. Their “Call to Action: Investing in Women’s Health” highlights the wide range of positive social and economic effects that investing in women worker’s health can have, including increased return on investment.

3. Providing health educational materials.

Health education materials such as handouts or posters should be available to all workers covering topics that address the health needs of male and female workers, such as hand-washing, proper nutrition, disease prevention, menstrual hygiene, reproductive health and family planning. These materials should be easily accessible and comprehensible to workers in local languages.

An example is a set of health education materials specifically designed for workplaces in low resource settings, recently launched by Bayer in partnership with the Evidence Project, as a part of their strategy to expand access to reproductive health and family planning information.

4. Capturing the “right” data.

Many of us have heard, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” You cannot measure what is happening to women if you do not collect and analyze data disaggregated by gender. Corporations should ensure suppliers collect sex disaggregated data to be able to measure the differential impact of workplace policies and practices on women and men. This would also include health data from workplace infirmaries, which should be analyzed and incorporated into documentation and record keeping.

The SDG Compass developed by U.N. Global Compact is one tool companies can use to start to align their strategies and measure their contribution to the realization of the SDGs.

It’s worth emphasizing the business case for companies to incorporate the broader health needs of workers, including reproductive health and family planning, into their business approach to advance the SDGs, responsible labor practices and human rights due diligence. Studies in developing and developed countries have documented the benefits to companies and their workers when worker health needs are addressed. These indicate a return on investment from reduced absenteeism and turnover and find many qualitative benefits — higher morale, better worker-manager communication — when a workplace addresses the health needs of its workers.

Women’s health and reproductive rights are inseparable from women’s empowerment, gender equality and labor rights. It’s time to move the corporate discussion on the SDG and women’s empowerment beyond public commitments to a better way of doing business that addresses women’s health in business operations in low- and middle-income countries.

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About the author

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Carolyn Rodehau

Carolyn Rodehau is the technical deputy for reproductive health workplace programs at Meridian Group International, Inc. She is currently seconded to the Population Council and serves as an associate on the Evidence Project. Prior to joining Meridian, she served as the program manager for the health and nutrition global initiative at Save the Children, which ensures the delivery of quality programming across the organization’s global maternal, newborn, and child health portfolio through technical capacity strengthening, global communications, and knowledge management activities targeting the organization’s seven regional offices and 48 country offices.


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