It’s time for the UN to put gender justice in business into action
It has been four years since Berta Cáceres was murdered in Honduras. A feminist environmental activist, she was targeted for relentlessly fighting against negative corporate practices and their effects on indigenous rights, women’s lives and environmental degradation.
Unfortunately, her story is not unique. From Brazil to Zimbabwe, we witness similar trends. For instance, last January, an iron dam burst in the city of Brumadinho, Brazil, killing almost 300 people and leaving thousands of families, mostly women-led, vulnerable. Two months after the disaster, Dilma Ferreira Silva was murdered after being vocal about the horrendous human rights violations perpetrated by multinationals operating dams in Brazil.
The murders and their contexts share striking similarities. Leaked official documents suggest that the multinational in charge of the Brumadinho dam, Vale SA, knew of the risk of collapse but did nothing to prevent it. The murder trial of Berta Cáceres was filled with cover-up allegations, indicating an atrocious level of impunity for the company building the dam she was protesting against at the time of her death. Berta Cáceres died to save a river; Dilma Ferreira Silva was murdered after denouncing the death of a river.
The stories of Ferreira and Cáceres highlight the reality that women and girls are the worst affected by the negative effects of bad business practices. Deeply ingrained power imbalances between genders have resulted in a legacy of sexual harassment, less formal employment for women and girls than for men and boys, and shameful gender pay gaps. These injustices are upheld by the economic systems that surround them.
Profits over people
Some of the human rights abuses perpetrated by transnational corporations highlight how economic growth trumps all other moral considerations. One example among many are the low wages and unsafe conditions endured by female garment workers in Bangladesh, which drive the profits of global clothing companies.
The profit motive of modern capitalist methods of production is not an adequate moral and ethical basis for society. The capitalist system is based on individualism, a limited role for the state, and deregulated markets. This represents an exclusive system for making and implementing policy, run by an alienated and disconnected elite. The economic system benefits this elite to the detriment of everyone else, especially those living in acute poverty and experiencing extreme inequality. This type of policy making results in a lack of commitment to people’s experiences and needs, which in turn instigates discriminatory practices and behaviour.
I am not suggesting that all businesses are ‘the big bad wolf’. On the contrary. There are several good business practices that have been able to tackle discrimination and contribute to inclusive practices. The point is that we must learn from these examples and align with them.
The current economic system is gendered. Women make up almost half of the workforce, yet earn less on average than men. If we are serious about tackling gender inequality, structures need to be challenged and changed. There are several human rights defenders that are resisting negative business practices by denouncing their gendered aspects. We must also make our stand.
We cannot be mere observers from the side-lines, gazing at a system that systematically discriminates against women and targets human rights defenders. If we do not take the opportunity to stand against this injustice, we become culprits. So we are calling on the UN to consider gender as a fundamental aspect of the draft Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights.
The UN Gender Guidance on Business and Human Rights: a call for deeper action
In 2017, the United Nations issued a call for a multi-stakeholder consultation on how to apply a gender lens to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The call aimed to develop guidance to give practical recommendations to states and business enterprises for what it means to protect, respect and remedy the rights of women in a business context. It also aimed to bring together those working in this field to explore ways to empower women who are at risk or have been adversely affected by business-related human rights abuses.
This timely call addressed an issue that is often invisible. However, I believe that the UN Gender Guidance on Business and Human Rights needs to go further: to be fully developed, adopted by the Human Rights Council, and adequately resourced.
I think that the UN Business and Human Rights Framework, its implementation mechanisms, and the states and business entities to which it applies, must respond better to the negative impacts of business on the rights of women and marginalised genders.
For example, since July 2018, many CSOs, multilateral agencies and other stakeholders have been negotiating the draft of a legally binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights - essential in enhancing corporate accountability. It is important for the UN Working Group and the Human Rights Council to also see the gender guidance as a pathway towards a comprehensive legally-binding treaty, which would address the need for a gender-responsive approach to remedying human rights violations. We therefore call all nation states, all private sector actors, all NGOs and all UN agencies to support the creation and ratification of a Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights.
Let us take a stand and shout loud and clear to our governments that all the ‘Bertas’ and ‘Dilmas’ of world can and must be free to fight for their rights without fear of reprisal or murder.
Our new policy report, Engendering Business and Human Rights, launched today, shares Christian Aid’s take on the new gender guidance being drafted by UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, and its trickle-down effect on the Binding Treaty negotiations.
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