Women need action, not words

Blog by Ayesha Carmouche

Today we show solidarity with women worldwide, championing the efforts of those who’ve fought back against the social and economic inequality that has afforded women a secondary status to men.

While this international day of recognition is well-meaning, it runs the risk of offering platitudes instead of direct action to end the poverty and discrimination women face worldwide. Nowhere is this more true than in resource-rich countries, where exploitation of natural resources often exacerbates women’s lack of opportunity and control over their financial and physical security.

CORE is a partner in an Essex University Human Rights Centre research project looking at gender-specific impacts of business activity in the extractives and agri-business sectors (keep your eye out for the research in the coming months).

Women make up a large proportion of small-scale farmers and are often the biggest losers when agricultural land is expropriated and homes destroyed by huge extractive and agri-business projects.

In Kenya, women have been excluded from community consultations, missing the only opportunity to influence decisions on what will happen to their land or if they will receive compensation for confiscated land. In Uganda, where oil will reportedly bring in $2bn in profits this year, women have suffered domestic violence because of family struggles over land control and payment for lost assets.

In such situations, multinational corporations wield huge economic and political power, and have the potential to significantly improve the lives of some of the most marginalised women. Yet many fail to think beyond their profit margins and opt to cozy up to corrupt governments and exploit countries with weak regulation and low taxes.

While ‘CSR’ commitments have echoed across boardrooms, many companies have yet to deliver changes in their practices on the ground. Their actions have undermined national economies and have contributed to violence, instability and poverty.  In Afghanistan, extractives have funded armed and political groups that have carried out abuses against women. They have also furthered widespread corruption and diverted funds away from public services, such as education and healthcare, which are hugely important to women.

The UK government describes itself as “a global leader on women’s economic empowerment… which aims to help women around the world to get jobs, overcome discriminatory laws”.  Indeed its global empowerment programme has sought to eliminate challenges to women’s employment, protect them from workplace violence, and increase their role in political decision making processes.

Despite this, the government remains reluctant to place requirements on UK companies to take steps to prevent human rights and environmental abuses that frequently have a disproportionate impact on women.

If a UK company’s operations have serious adverse impacts on human rights, including women’s human rights, our government should consider corporate prosecutions to hold that company to account.

It makes no sense for companies and governments to declare their commitments to women’s empowerment while turning a blind eye to operations which undermine women’s safety and independence. Women need action, not words.