Let’s talk about sex
Ensuring sexual and reproductive health will not only benefit the women employed, but the factory owners as well.
Talking about sex is taboo in Bangladesh. However, remaining silent increases risks for millions of women and those working in the fast fashion industry are especially vulnerable to sex and menstrual health related diseases.
Last summer, around 600 women gathered in front of Northern Tosrifa’s factory in Bangladesh. The factory supplies garments for renowned European brands. The security guards and factory management had a hard time controlling the crowd. There was chaos and yelling everywhere. But this was not the scene of a violent workers’ strike like those we have seen erupting since the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, where over 1.100 garment workers lost their lives. No, these workers had come together for a Hepatitis B vaccination.
The garment industry in Bangladesh is a 28-billion-dollar industry with over 3000 factories, and roughly four million workers, making fast fashion the largest source of employment in the country. 85% of this workforce consists of young women, most of them originally from rural areas - areas with strict taboos in relation to sex and menstrual health. This makes these women very vulnerable to health risks, especially due to insufficient personal hygiene, unsafe abortion, unsafe sex and inadequate family planning methods. And indeed, over 17% of these female garment workers suffer from sexually transmitted diseases and reproductive tract infections (STI/RTIs). Diseases that are preventable or easily treated provided you have the means and necessary knowledge. However, because of the taboos surrounding sex and menstrual health, these women are reluctant to talk about it and this reinforces the status quo.
“We women have all kinds of illnesses, we just can’t tell anyone. Especially if the manager of the factory is male,” says Ashamoni, an employee at Syed Garments. “Some of the girls are only thirteen years old, they will not speak up.”
Working with women
After the Rana Plaza disaster brought to light the appalling conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands opted to fund SNV’s 'Working with Women’ project. The project seeks to raise awareness of sexual and reproductive health. SNV encourages garment factory owners to play an active role in their workers’ health and well-being, by providing much-needed health insurance or in-house professional medical advice.
We refrain from using traditional awareness and capacity building programmes that target only workers, since that would create demand without providing supply. Instead, we involve all relevant parties to safeguard prolonged access to better health conditions for workers. This involvement is key to our inclusive business concept. We work with companies to gain access to a wider pool of quality resources, creating market based opportunities, while members from low-income communities become commercial producers or valued employees. “At first the women were reluctant to open up.” Ashamoni describes the first awareness workshop held by SNV at Syed Garments, “These girls from the NGO started talking about sex. It was the first time I heard something like that. Some people were so embarrassed that they didn’t talk to them at all.”
Ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) will not only benefit the women employed, but the factory owners as well. Losses from absenteeism resulting from such illnesses are costing the industry over $22 million a year. For example, BSR’s Her Project reported that for every $1 (€0.85) invested in women’s health by factory owners brings a return of $3 (€2.50) through higher productivity, lower turnover and reduced absenteeism.
Despite the initial reluctance demonstrated by women like Ashamoni, the Managing Director of Syed Garments decided to cooperate with SNV and invest in his employees’ health and well-being. He installed a booth within the factory’s premises, where a health specialist now provides SRHR information, facilities and products such as contraceptives.
“At first, I was scared to go to this specialist, but when I saw my sister-in-law who also works here go into the booth, my friends and I started visiting regularly,” says Ashamoni.
A stitch in time…
To reach a wider audience, SNV publicly awarded best practices to factories that supported their female workers’ access to convenient and affordable SRHR services. Further publicity is given via talk shows in partnership with leading media in the country. And we have discussed the importance of incorporating policies with the government and trade bodies so these policies are adequately implemented.
The current phase of the programme came to an end in July 2017 and resulted in SNV having successfully worked with 20 separate factories to make SRHR services and products available for more than 64.000 workers. It’s a promising result, but one that highlights the plight for millions of other women in Bangladesh who remain without proper sexual and reproductive health care. Systemic change at such a large scale rarely occurs overnight. But growing numbers of responsible businesses and consumers give reason for optimism. Finding ways to talk about sex not only helps to remove age-old barriers for women in Bangladesh, but also reduces the human cost at which fast fashion regrettably often comes.