As COVID-19 continues to surge globally, communities and countries are facing the very real health, social, and economic impacts of the pandemic, and entire industries are being upended in ways we’ve never seen before. But girls and women — the backbone of the current and future global workforce — are disproportionately at risk. Companies must respond to the health and well-being needs of their female workforces, and many are committed to taking that responsibility.

Before COVID-19 hit, women in low-resource countries had been entering the formal workforce at unprecedented rates, particularly in the apparel and agriculture sectors. Women make up 60 to 80% of export manufacturing workers and three-quarters of the 60 million to 75 million workers in textile, clothing, and footwear supply chains. One of every four employed women is working in the agriculture industry. The average woman employed in these types of jobs is paid below a living wage, is a contract worker with little long-term stability or social safety net, and often faces other factors that marginalize her — maybe she is a migrant working far from home, or she is facing health challenges for which care is out of reach. Women’s health, rights, and well-being are too often neglected in these scenarios — and this is especially true now, in the midst of the pandemic.

COVID-19 didn’t make women’s health needs less important — it only amplified their importance — and companies are realizing that the health and well-being of their female workers is critical to building back long-term resilience. Companies, particularly those with global supply chains that primarily employ women, have a clear opportunity to meet their female workers where they are — in the workplace — with essential health and empowerment information and services.

Momentum has been building on corporate action on workers and women’s health. In 2019, 11 major global companies announced new and expansive commitments to improving the health and well-being of a combined hundreds of thousands of women working in their supply chains. One year later, companies are increasingly connecting the dots between meeting the essential health needs of their female workers and realizing the business returns and resilience that come with it. Though none have escaped the impacts of COVID-19, these same companies have maintained, and in some cases, expanded, their programs to ensure that the essential needs of their female workers are met, from reaching tea estate workers and their families with information on healthy diets and maternal, infant, and young child nutrition; to screening for breast cancer at a garment manufacturer — and identifying two cases for treatment that may otherwise have gone unnoticed; to training management in the identification and prevention of sexual harassment and gender-based violence in factories in India and Morocco.

What COVID-19 Means for Women in Global Supply Chains
Wellness facilitators at Laj Exports, an apparel company in Bangalore, India that uses peer educators to share health and well-being information with employees. Photo: © Universal Access Project

And now, more companies are pledging action: The Farida Group, one of the largest manufacturers of shoes in India; Fresh Del Monte Kenya, a regional producer of juices; the Ethiopia Horticultural Producers Exporters Association, representing over 130 export farms; and global apparel companies PVH and MAS Holdings have announced bold, measurable, and time-bound commitments through the UN Foundation’s Private Sector Action for Women’s Health and Empowerment initiative to reach female workers with health and empowerment information and services such as contraception, maternal health care, menstrual health care, leadership training, anti-harassment programs, and reproductive cancer screenings. The purpose of these efforts is not to launch one-off programs, but to build workers’ health and well-being into the core business approach of the company in a sustainable way. Workplace women’s health is about ensuring workers have access to the information and services they have a right to and also about respecting the intrinsic value of women having control over their health and lives in ways that enable them to thrive in their jobs and their life pursuits. This is not a silver bullet to solve the challenges faced by many women working in global supply chains, but addressing health and well-being needs helps build a foundation from which other needs and rights can be addressed.

This is all part of a growing trend: Consumers are increasingly wielding their buying power to demand ethical practices and sustainability from global corporations, and civil society is tracking how these practices play out in reality. Since the pandemic hit, the #PayUp campaign has galvanized more than 200,000 people to call on global apparel companies — an industry that is particularly hard-hit in the pandemic — to honor their contracts to ensure garment workers are paid fairly in this time of crisis, and global labor organizations have echoed the sentiment. Meanwhile, the World Benchmarking Alliance launched a groundbreaking report that sheds light on how the top global apparel companies are — or are not — sharing data related to gender equality efforts throughout their global supply chains, finding that there is no clear leader in the sector and, instead, an opportunity for companies to take concrete action to improve the lives of their workers.

It’s clear there is demand and opportunity for companies to do more in this space. They have not only a responsibility to fulfill their commitments to their workers and supply chains but also an imperative to invest in the health and well-being of their female workers by meeting their individual needs and rights while building toward a sustained recovery that makes people and value chains less vulnerable to future crises.

We have a long way to go for girls and women everywhere to realize full health, rights, and equality. Now more than ever, we need to work together to protect women’s health and rights to save lives and to build toward a more resilient future in which we are truly equal everywhere. This will take all sectors of society — governments, civil society, the private sector — working together. But more than that, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do business differently, so when the pandemic crisis eases, we do not go back to business as usual; instead, we focus on new ways of doing business — for women, for workers, for communities.

Featured Photo: © Universal Access Project