Cross-posted from UN Women
Mary, now 39, works as a trainer for Social Awareness and Voluntary Education, a human rights organization based in Tirupur, a city in Tamil Nadu. She leads training sessions in six garment factories across the state aimed at reducing workplace sexual harassment. Her NGO is part of an innovative project focused on the garment supply chain that is led by Netherlands-based NGO Fair Wear Foundation, in partnership with garment factories in India and Bangladesh, European clothing brands, governments, civil society organizations and trade unions in Europe and Asia.
According to studies by Fair Wear Foundation, violence against women is widespread in India’s garment factories. Violence ranges from verbal and physical abuse to sexual harassment and rape.
In 2013, a new law, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, strengthened the legal protection afforded to women working in garment factories in India. To ensure the law is being implemented, Mary believes a holistic approach, including awareness and training, is needed.
As part of the initiative, the ‘Preventing Workplace Violence’ project, which is supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, 3,500 workers in India and Bangladesh have received direct training in 24 factories, while another 15,000 workers have been trained via peer-to-peer education.
“Management now takes quick action when a complaint is brought to them. In the past they would not even know what we were going through,” says a 31-year-old female factory worker in Tirupur.
After receiving initial training, workers are nominated to join the management and NGO representatives as part of a newly-established ‘Anti-Harassment Committees’. They meet monthly to address harassment cases. This group receives further training in communication and listening, problem-solving and decision-making to help resolve cases.
According to Juliette Li, a coordinator with Fair Wear Foundation, “lots of women accept sexual harassment because they don’t recognize it as such. And if they do, the factory manager doesn’t take it seriously. We want to create an atmosphere in which workers can talk to their bosses.”
By participating in anti-harassment committees, women have become more vocal on the factory floor. Whereas no women held supervisory positions in any of the six factories at the beginning of the project, five women have since been promoted to such roles.
“We are empowering women more and they are getting knowledge of all these related issues,” says Mary. “We could see after the trainings that the position of women is changing.”