Partnerships that Work for Women: Lessons from BSR’s HERproject
It’s UNGA time again—the annual jamboree around the UN General Assembly meetings, where the world comes together to assess and advance international cooperation efforts. Most of the hundreds of formal events, side meetings, and informal discussions are framed around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Goal 5 (gender equality) is at the heart of progress towards the SDGs: efforts to reduce poverty and inequalities and promote sustainable, inclusive development begin with the empowerment of women. For example, every two minutes a woman dies from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, with 99 percent of these women living in developing countries. Addressing health systems gaps that disproportionately affect women is critical to broader progress on SDG 3’s health targets. Similarly, low-income women in agriculture are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts—but can also be powerful agents for change if we make concerted efforts to unlock their potential.
At BSR’s HERproject™, the women we work with are mostly workers in garment factories or on flower or tea farms. Around the world, approximately 200 million women work in global supply chains, which are a key driver of economic activity and provide low-income women workers with formal jobs that can represent a pathway to improved livelihoods for themselves and their families.
Yet these women workers face systemic discrimination and inequality; on a daily basis, they encounter many of the barriers that the SDGs are trying to remove, from adverse social norms that suggest that women should take on different types of work than men to experiences of physical, sexual, or psychological violence. In our work, we see first-hand the interconnections between SDG 5 and SDG 3 (health) or SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth). We also know that achieving lasting progress requires partnerships (SDG 17): partnerships between companies at all levels of the supply chain, including between competitors; and between companies, civil society and governments.
After a decade of partnering with both companies and public-sector donors to empower over 800,000 women, we’re taking a step back to ask:
What allows partnerships to drive progress towards SDG 5 and to empower low-income women workers?
1. First: we believe that it is crucial to start with a common goal and model. Our core has been the shared belief that empowering small groups of women workers in factories and on farms can create a ripple effect. These women realize their own empowerment and are supported with knowledge and skills related to health, finance, and gender equality, which they share with colleagues at work and within their families and communities.
2. Second: A strong, enduring core provides the space for experimentation and innovation. That’s where the different perspectives and needs of the public and private sector can drive progress. For HERproject, it has been important to maintain a nimble and flexible approach to benefit from the different resources and expertise within such partnerships. That has allowed us to work with, for instance, Ann Taylor, LOFT, Lou & Grey (part of the ascena retail group collective of brands) to adapt HERproject to remote rural community settings, and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to take our wage digitization program to scale in Bangladesh. Our approach is to continually refine and explore—without losing sight of what holds us together.
3. We have also found that partnerships grow best when programs demonstrate results and impact. Robust data is critical for both public and private-sector organizations: it can show the correlated benefits for women and for business, allowing programs to tap into the sweet spot where social good and business value meet.
4. Finally, it’s vital to remember that there are no quick fixes and that the road ahead is rarely straight. At times, partnering and the work involved will be frustrating and difficult, and it can feel like one step forward, two steps back. Objectives will not always align and the perfect model or program may remain out of reach. The fight to tackle gender inequality and empower low-income women in global supply chains will not be won during the short time horizon of project implementation; partnerships must look to the long term and keep faith. At HERproject, many of our key partners have made long-term investments that have enabled all parties to stick the course and grow their impact—and we are deeply grateful to them for their support.
Our experience has shown that partnership between companies, civil society, and government can deliver meaningful impact for women in global supply chains. But there is so much more still to be done. For partnerships to succeed, all stakeholders must be involved and pull in the same direction. At HERproject, for example, we need to be much more proactive in engaging local farms and factories in co-creating solutions; we need more male champions of everything we do; and most importantly, we’re working to find better ways for women’s voice to direct our work so that we can fulfill their needs and ambitions.