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Chinese companies could unleash huge potentials to promote gender equality through responsible business practices

Huang Zhong, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre

Women fishing Nepal

In April 2019, a colleague and I conducted a two-week field study in Nepal to examine the social dimension of risks and opportunities linked to sustainable Chinese overseas investment. The research team focused on hydropower, road building, and construction sectors because of the growing Chinese investment and influence in these fields and their potential impact on communities, women, and indigenous groups.

Through meetings, interviews and focus groups with a various range of stakeholders, including government officials, specialists of international development agencies, managers of companies and business associations, women’s groups, local politicians and representatives of indigenous communities, the research reveals that in spite of progress made in the legal and policy framework, the Nepalese government is limited in its ability to protect women and girls from multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination stemming from patriarchal norms and social structures. There is also a lack of recognition of the rights of disadvantaged groups of women, such as indigenous women.

Against this backdrop, the research team found that the needs, experiences, and perspectives of women were largely neglected due to the lack of gender analysis and gender impact assessment by the businesses and relevant policy-makers at different levels. The persistent “gender blindness” in infrastructure development projects directly or indirectly affected the livelihood, health and safety of women and girls and sometimes reinforced the gendered roles of women in their families and communities. Moreover, women were less likely getting employment opportunities and being involved in meaningful consultation and decision-making process.

Despite the remaining gaps that need urgent action from both government and companies, however, researchers also found emerging good practice by Chinese businesses in promoting gender equality in the workplace and community.

  • Promoting gender equality in the workplace

One Chinese company explicitly expressed that it prioritizes women and low caste applicants when hiring local employees, which aligns with the principles of nondiscrimination based on gender and castes system enshrined in the new constitution of Nepal. It further stated half of their cleaners are people from the lower castes. Sixty percent of the total of 80 staff are women workers. It is noteworthy that there are several female technicians apart from cleaners, gardeners, and kitchen staff that are traditionally dominated by women partly due to the gender stereotypes and divisions at work.

Additionally, one Chinese company considered the caste system is inconsistent with corporate culture that values talents and dedication. The manager tackled it by communicating with the involved staff and promoting people from lower castes.

  • Empowering community women through local procurement

A company used to purchase vegetables for Chinese workers at the market far away from the community during the construction period.  A women's committee in the community negotiated with the company about improving the local procurement. Women inquired about the list of vegetables from the company and traveled to the capital city for buying the seeds and learning to grow them. They reached an agreement with the company on purchasing the specific Chinese vegetables that local women grown in the community. The local women showed confidence in providing agri-products that could meet the company's requirement, and they gained more earnings through exploring business opportunities with the company.

The anecdotal evidences above show foreign investors and companies, including those from China, could play an active role in promoting inclusion and equality when they are aware of the risks of discriminatory culture and customs that not only negatively affect the employees and communities, but also might jeopardize the productivity and reputation of companies per se, and take proactive measures to address it. However, companies can only create systematic change by understanding and adopting a holistic approach to incorporate a gender-responsive approach into their operations and due diligence process. The newly-developed gender guidance by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights is a timely and necessary tool for businesses and investors to follow. Chinese companies overseas are becoming powerful players in many host countries. We expect that more Chinese companies will go beyond compliance with local laws and policies and take the lead role in developing best practices to make gender equality mainstream in their business cycle and amply their positive influence.