Why women’s right to health and gender equality should be your business

A photo from the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which took place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in March 2019. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Do you know that a woman’s right to decide over her own body and her access to family planning methods and information are key determinants of whether she enters and stays in the labour market? And do you know that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, revealing that women’s right to health, decent work, and equal participation in society are closely connected?

Many people in the business community do not necessarily see a correlation between sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), women’s labor force participation, and decent work. Moreover, with the 10-year countdown to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), there is a need to build a collective conscience about the importance of women’s right to health, including their SRHR, if the global community is to deliver on the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. 

Inequality - a barrier to women’s equal participation

Structural inequality leads to poor access to health information and services for women, such as family planning, female hygiene products, medical care, and workplace health insurance catering for their reproductive needs. These become major barriers to women’s equal participation in paid work, economic empowerment, and agency. Globally, one in three women will experience gender-based violence, including at work, and women remain underpaid and underrepresented across management levels. 

The private sector has a significant role to play in ushering in a “Decade of Action” on women’s equal rights. As manifested in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the recent guidance on its Gender Dimensions, companies have a clear-cut responsibility to respect women’s human rights, including their right to health.

Globally, one in three women will experience gender-based violence, including at work, and women remain underpaid and underrepresented across management levels.

Luckily, workplace investments in health and gender equality are not a zero-sum game, but an investment in the core-business itself. A growing body of evidence reveals that companies that invest in gender equality and health in the workplace achieve reduced levels of absenteeism, greater job satisfaction and employee engagement, as well as improvements in efficiency, productivity, and financial performance

However, to achieve these benefits, companies must adopt a strategic and long-term view to mainstream gender in the business. To a greater extent, companies need to identify and address gender-related risks that negatively impact women’s right to health and wellbeing, and their equal participation at work. For example, companies should develop and implement gender-sensitive policies and practices to create an enabling work environment for women. A simple case in point is to ensure that women workers in particular can access maternity leave without fear of losing their job. Companies should also implement recruitment and hiring practices that reduce gender stereotypes, bias, and barriers to women’s labour force participation. They should also collect sex-disaggregated data on pay and promotions to close the gender-pay gap and to support women’s access to the talent pipeline. 

To ensure decent work, companies should protect expectant mothers from exposure to hazardous chemicals or heavy lifting at work, provide paid parental leave in line with national labor laws, and identify and combat sexual harassment in line with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) global standard, C190 on violence and harassment in the world of work. In addition, companies should implement effective grievance mechanisms in accordance with UNGP 31 e.g. a non-judicial grievance mechanism that is equitable, legitimate, and rights compatible. 

Mainstreaming gender in business – an example from East Africa

In Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, barriers to women’s health and rights at work are widespread. Many women working in the textile, floriculture, and manufacturing industries report miscarriages due to heavy lifting at work;  job loss due to pregnancy; employers withholding pay during maternity leave; sexual harassment in the workplace; and being forced to spend the night in the workplace to complete orders. In addition, women have reported excessive working hours, few breaks, and wages well below the living-wage, which all result in a limited opportunity for these women to access and afford health services, and engage in decent work that delivers a fair income. These violations are compounded by the fact that national labour inspectors are underfunded, few, and have limited capacity to ensure oversight and accountability on part of companies.

To address these challenges, the Danish Family Planning Association has established partnerships with several vocal business associations— Federation of Uganda Employers, Federation of Kenya Employers, and Ethiopia Horticulture Producer Exporters Association and civil society partners such as Reproductive Health UgandaFamily Guidance Association of Ethiopia, and Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions. Together, we improve workers' access to SRHR information and services and work to mainstream health, including SRHR, and gender equality in the core business of companies and farms. We also advocate jointly for revisions of existing  labour laws to include gender dimensions e.g. that companies should be legally required to provide lactating women access to safe and private breastfeeding rooms at the workplace to maintain women’s participation in the labour market. We also advocate for greater labour oversight to strengthen  implementation of existing labour law.

Working in-depth with committed companies and farms allows us to gradually build and promote the best practices needed to advocate for structural change in the region.

By leveraging Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) as our strategic inroad, we can tap into formal and well-established workplace structures to further mainstream a gender lens to health and equality. In other words, we integrate health and gender aspects in existing OHS systems for instance concerning women’s security in the workplace. Apart from raising awareness of basic human and labour rights and relevant ILO conventions (such as C100 on equal Remuneration and C190) among employers and employees, we demonstrate how SRHR and gender equality issues such as maternal health, access to contraceptives, right to parental leave, and prevention of gender-based violence are critical to business operations and employee retention. This approach fosters a greater understanding of the business relevance of gender-sensitive policies, workplace practices and grievance mechanisms among senior managers and within OHS committees. In this way, we contribute to the reduction of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, the improvement of hygiene practices, and the creation of a safer work environment for women. 

Central to our strategy is to build a “Coalition of the Willing.” This constitutes working closely with companies that are willing to invest in SRHR and gender equality in their business operations to create a more inclusive and safe work environment. Working in-depth with committed companies and farms allows us to gradually build and promote the best practices needed to advocate for structural change in the region. Our collaboration with East African business associations is instrumental in our ability to engage companies across Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, secure their commitment, and establish the evidence base needed to drive change at scale.

Gender-responsive private sector needed 

This past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the extent to which inequalities and power hierarchies exist in society. In fact, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequality, skewed power dynamics, and left the most vulnerable workers in labour intensive industries such as manufacturing, accommodation and food, as well as wholesale and retail trade without an income or security. According to McKinsey and UN Women, women workers are overrepresented when it comes to layoffs and loss of livelihood, and they also face increased risks of gender-based violence due to economic and social stressors. At the same time, workers’ poor access to water and sanitation in the workplace and at home has become a real risk in the local fight against COVID-19.  

In light of these challenges that exist in East Africa and other regions in the Global South, the post-pandemic reality calls for a thorough assessment of the gendered effects of COVID-19 in the private sector and serious efforts to mainstream SRHR and gender equality in business strategy, policies, and practices to create decent work for all. A first step towards creating this reality requires that companies invest in universal, gender-responsive, social protection systems to reduce women’s income insecurity. Next, companies should support women’s access to flexible work arrangements and to affordable, quality childcare services which would reduce attrition of working women, and  enable women to re-enter the labor market. Among other things, companies should make a serious effort to reduce existing inequalities by reducing the gender-pay gap, upholding maternity provisions, tackling gender bias and pervasive undervaluation of work carried out by women, and reducing gender-based violence and harassment at work to support women’s economic empowerment, health and well-being.


This piece is part of a blog series focusing on the gender dimensions of business and human rights. The blog series is in partnership with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and OpenGlobalRights. The views expressed in the series are those of the authors. For more on the latest news and resources on gender, business, and human rights, visit this portal.