Women, business and human rights: working towards a Binding Treaty with a gender perspective

Fernanda Hopenhaym, Executive Director at PODER

CC BY SA 3.0

Fernanda Hopenhaym explores, from a feminist perspective, the importance of a UN Binding Treaty with a gender perspective and why it should be implemented.

During the mid 1960s, oil drilling in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest ensued with little consideration of whether it was deemed harmful. Almost three decades later, the company has fled, leaving behind a devastated ecosystem and close to one thousand oil “pools”, which continue to contaminate groundwater sources and release toxic waste.

A little over three years ago in Mexico, the Buenavista del Cobre mining company contaminated the Sonora and Bacánuchi rivers with more than forty-thousand cubic metres of copper sulphate acid; damaging the health of over twenty-two thousand people and diminishing the productivity of the region. Despite the United Nation’s pressure for the Mexican government to respond to the case, no one has been held accountable for the worst mining-related environmental disaster Mexico has seen.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building, in Bangladesh in 2013, killed more than one thousand people working in unsafe and exploitative conditions; most of them women.

Companies operating without consequence have a disproportionate effect on women. Situations like these could be minimised with an international treaty that obliges them to respond to their actions. For over a decade, the Binding Treaty has been promoted worldwide by hundreds of civil society groups waiting for this moment. 

From a feminist perspective, why is the Binding Treaty important?

Because women are the ones who bear differentiated care responsibilities; when there are health problems in a community, for example, it is women that take care of the sick;

Because in rural communities, women travel miles to collect water, and are thus affected by episodes of pollution. Or, when companies monopolise water for their operations, it reduces access for human and animal consumption;

Because working women have poorer working conditions, both in terms of wages and health and safety measures; for gender-based violence in the workplace, and on similar violence encountered to and from work;

Because women human rights defenders, especially at the community level, are threatened, harassed and often attacked when they face corporate powers.

These examples, along with many others, prove that the Binding Treaty is inextricably linked to women’s rights. Throughout 2017, #Feminists4BindingTreaty, a collective feminist movement, pushed for a gender perspective to be placed on the Treaty discussion-table. If materialised, it would provide the necessary legal mechanisms so that large transnational corporations are obliged to respect human rights and, consequently, those who have had their rights violated can access justice and reparation. It is a historic opportunity for women.

#Feminists4BindingTreaty have proposed the following recommendations, focused along three main areas:

2. Gender Impact Assessments

Human rights abuses by corporations are not gender neutral. When it comes to labour rights violations, women are represented disproportionately in the informal sector and in vulnerable jobs. Land dispossession and the displacement of rural and indigenous communities through oil or mining exploration, and other extractive industries, has a disproportionate impact on those that care for their families - more commonly, women and girls.

Business activities can lead to an increase in gender discrimination and sexual violence, which is why the Treaty should mandate Gender Impact Assessments on companies’ operations. Women from affected communities should have the power to choose independent and trusted entities to conduct such evaluations, to ensure that they do not serve corporate interests over human rights. The Human Rights Impact Assessments as well as the Environmental Impact Assessments must include a gender analysis and take into account the differentiated impacts on the rights of women and girls.

2. Justice with a Gender Perspective and Reparation Mechanisms

Access to justice for communities affected by corporate abuse is hampered by numerous social, economic and political factors: courts or judges absent from rural areas, unaffordable legal procedures, intimidation and threats. Legal procedures are usually not conducted in the language spoken by indigenous and rural communities, and judicial processes can be manipulated by powerful economic and political interests as well as influenced by gender stereotypes. Women usually face gender violence with certain specificities, stigmas, reprisals and insecurity in employment for reporting the abuse they suffer in the workplace.

For these reasons, the Treaty should require States to: review all barriers that limit or impede access to justice and comprehensive reparation to women, and fully comply with their obligation to ensure access to legal assistance to ensure that the systems of justice are physically, economically and socially accessible for women. These reparations must have a transforming potential, instead of reinforcing existing conditions of violence and discrimination against women and girls.

3. Ensure Respect, Protection and Generation of an Enabling Environment for Women Human Rights Defenders

The Treaty should require States to respect, protect and create an environment conducive to the work of all human rights defenders, with special attention to women and defenders. Women human rights defenders, particularly in contexts of armed conflicts and post-conflict situations, face greater risks of violence, criminalisation, stigmatisation and harassment. Perpetrators include state and corporate actors, as well as state and private security forces. States must recognise women human rights defenders in all their diversity, cease criminalisation and other violations of their human rights, adopt protection mechanisms and make all perpetrators accountable before the justice system.

On 8 March, the #Feminists4BindingTreaty supported civil society efforts in Geneva, to ensure the continuity of the process towards a Binding Treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. The incorporation of a gender perspective into the Treaty, and guaranteeing the protection of women, including defenders, against corporate abuse must continue to be advocated for.