On 26 November 2018, SNV's Working with Women Project- II organised a seminar at the National Press Club in Dhaka on ‘End Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work’ to observe the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The key objectives of the seminar were to engage the Ready–Made Garments (RMG) sector to raise awareness and facilitate a policy level discussion on ending violence against women in the RMG industries, and to generate recommendations for better implementation of existing policies in the workplace.
The RMG sector is the top contributor to Bangladesh's economy nowadays. This sector has a significant presence of working women in the country, which is roughly over 3 million out of 4.3 million workers in this sector. In Bangladesh, the RMG sector received special attention on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November.
In Bangladesh, RMG female workers often experience verbal abuse, groping during factory security checks and unwanted advances by male colleagues. Also, intimidations for attempted sexual relations at the workplace, corporal punishments, sexual harassment in public and rape. In most cases, they are not empowered enough to seek support. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women represents a big opportunity to raise a collective voice to stop these types of violence against RMG female workers in Bangladesh.
The seminar covered both workplace and domestic aspects of violence against women in Bangladesh. The speakers of the seminar stressed the importance of undertaking initiatives to prevent violence against women in workplaces, particularly in the RMG factories. Radio FM 71, a local radio channel, broadcasted the panel discussion and connected with the RMG female workers who shared their questions and opinions with the panel during the seminar.
"We have been receiving training to fight against violence in our factory. However, we need to know what initiatives are taken by the government to end violence against women outside of the factory. The number of female workers is declining so it is time to know why this is consistently happening and what should be done to change this trend," a female garment worker said.
Mr. Abu Hena Muhib moderated the session and collected all the questions of the participants for the panelists. For example, a worker commented that her factory is providing health and life insurance facilities through SNV’s Working With Women project but wonders what will happen if she changes her job. She wanted to know if these services will be available in all factories and if the government is planning to make it mandatory in all RMG factories.
Maheen Sultan, Member of Naripokkho, a women’s rights organisation and Team Leader for the Shojag (means vigilant in Bangla) Coalition said "First of all hats off to the female RMG workers for breaking the barrier of our society where women are considered to be contingent on her family. They came out from isolation and achieved around 36%sharese of the labor market in the country. However, we have to understand the different aspects of violence against women. Currently, 30% of working women are facing violence while the perception of violence is 80% in this sector. The factories are aware of this issue and are being considered a safe place for female workers".
Nazma Yesmin, Project Coordinator of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) and a labour rights activist, mentioned that "Women's participation in the RMG factories is rapidly declining these days. In the 80s there was over 80% of female workers in the RMG sector, which has now fallen to 61%. Women workers are forced to join the informal sector. In addition, only 602 factories have trade unions among the 5000 factories that are functioning in the sector. This is an alarming issue for this sector.".
Nasimun Ara Haque Minu, President of Bangladesh Female Journalists' Association, highlighted the contribution of the RMG workers for developing the national economy. "We have to build a collaborative society and a working place where male colleagues support female colleagues with a positive mindset. This might be the best way to reduce workplace violence.".
Dr. Nazneen Akhter, Assistant Prof at North South University, said that the overall branding of the RMG sector is not up to the mark. She said, ‘We see some social stigma in the educated community to join this sector. In order to make RMG factories a safe home for the female workers, the educated community should step forward’.
Nishat Nahrin Hamid, Director of Shasha Denims Ltd, added that 10 years back the zero-tolerance policy was introduced for any forms of physical or verbal abuse. Also, that Shasha Denim introduced the Complaint Box where any worker can anonymously share complaints and that in the last two years the factory has provided a number of trainings to their workers to improve the holistic scenario of the factory.
Dr. Abul Hossain, Project Director of the Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence against Women at the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, focused on the overall empowerment of the women in Bangladesh. He mentioned that the concept of violence varies with perception and awareness of society. He said, "We have sufficient laws, and now we have to figure out the effective uses of these laws. The government is actively working on this".
In response to a question from a female RMG worker regarding her fear of street violence after working hours, Mr. Hossain replied that the Government launched a 24-hour free mobile phone application to support female workers called Joy. Any female worker can also seek support from the police department by calling 109.
The speakers concluded with a positive note that all the stakeholders should work together to end gender-based violence in the workplace. The government should work with the private sector, especially for the health and wellbeing of the workers. The moderator sought special provision from the government to fight violence against female workers so that they can continue supporting the national economy.
Working with Women-Project II is funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The project aims to improve the health and wellbeing of garment workers in Bangladesh through Inclusive Business practices across the RMG value chain.