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#HerWorkMatters: why labour rights and female empowerment must go together

Lucile Stengel & Juliane Reissig (Lensational) and Emily Loud (Wonder Foundation)

Last week, the world commemorated the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, and called for improved conditions for (often female) garment workers. This includes things you and I might consider basic rights like a workplace that is safe from abuse and accident, with wages that pay enough to actually survive.

It’s a worthy cause, and there is an encouraging prospect of change mobilised by citizens themselves. But the women making clothes under such appalling conditions are only one piece of the puzzle. According to the International Labour Rights Forum, women make up 40% of the global workforce, yet they still earn less than their male counterparts in every country and face abuse, insecurity and a host of other indignities while they are at it.

As International Workers Day approaches on Sunday 1 May, Wonder Foundation and Lensational - two charities working to empower women globally - are joining forces to explore the links between empowerment and work, raise awareness about female workers and their realities, and encourage you to do the same.

So our starting question is: what does it mean to be empowered? We hear this word almost daily in a broad range of contexts. For working women across the world, we reckon, it has a few key parts: 

Access to education and skills

Lensational teaching photography in Pakistan.

Having the ability and information to decide your path in life should not be a luxury. Yet, without enough financial resources to pay for education, many girls in developing countries feel they have little choice about doing work with abysmal money, conditions and prospects. 

At Wonder we understand that education is the first step to helping young women these circumstances, or worse. Ujunwa, a scholar we supported in Nigeria, told us: “My father sells provisions in the village while my mother sells pap (corn meal). People expected my father to resort to giving me to an early marriage. But thanks to the scholarship I was granted, I can continue my education in Lantana and be able to help my family solve some of their financial problems.”

From its work with domestic workers in Hong Kong, Lensational knows how empowering it can be to learn additional skills, possibly beyond the actual skills needed in a specific work context. Continuous learning and acquiring new skills is a key factor in the general personal and professional development. Marikit Lorenzo said after the photography workshop: “I am indeed very thankful for the new learning experience [...]. We noticed that we are not just good at cleaning or cooking or taking care of children or elderly, but that we are also good at developing new interests and improving ourselves from who we were yesterday.”

Opportunities for change 

Lensational workshop for garment workers in Bangladesh.

Work that rewards, enables and facilitates these decisions is a way for women to not only contribute to the economy, but also to lift themselves out of poverty. Recognising this, changing what we expect from work as a way to help women to both access better conditions is an important step forward. Reforming the practices of informal, insecure employment, and helping women to leave such working environments, is one way to work towards empowerment in this context. Vocational training can help poorer women access these career paths, by providing them with specific, practical experience relevant to their local job market. 

For Wonder’s partners in the Philippines, this means helping women from impoverished backgrounds to get the skills they need for the hospitality industry, and securing practical placements so they can make the leap straight into employment. 

At Lensational, we team up with local NGOs and partners sharing our vision. One example is our collaboration with Earl Fashion Limited, a sweater factory in Ojharpara, Gazipur, Bangladesh. Ms. Farzana, one of the owners of Earl Fashion, has a great amount of experience in development projects for garment workers, creates opportunities encouraging female workers at the factory to learn new skills.  

Confidence and choice

Photo: Lensational. 

Confidence is another concept that can be hard to pin down, but for many women it means believing in your abilities and relying on yourself. For women trapped in unstable employment, this may be far out of reach. 

Quality education that leads to decent and predictable earnings is a recognised way to build a sense of confidence and independence. In different ways, Wonder and Lensational both work to help beneficiaries cultivate this, by broadening their skillsets and boosting their income prospects.  

Photo: Lensational. 

When personal development is made possible, and confidence can grow, women can access something at the very heart of empowerment: choice. But without earning income to support these choices, these elements will struggle to be more than buzzwords. In the end, #HerWorkMatters because decent employment is the place where empowerment can be achieved in real-life.  

#HerWorkMatters: Join the discussion!

The world still has a long way to go to help women achieve the rights they deserve in the workplace. Recognising how and why #HerWorkMatters is a good way to start. Throughout the week we will raise various issues at stake related to women’s working life. To find out more about the women we work with across the globe, their working conditions, their struggles and dreams, follow us on social media all week. Join us and share your own stories on whatfemale empowerment in the workplace means to you, and we will feature the best #HerWorkMatters stories on Labour Day (Sunday).