Check the Noise: Why are Women’s Rights relevant for Business and Human Rights academics and activists?

Trigger Warning – This post covers sexual violence against women

by Theresa

This post is my way of honouring the 8th March 2015 – the anniversary of the United Nations’ “International Women’s Day”. I am going to explain to you why women’s rights matter for everyone interested in Business and Human Rights. In order to give us all some time to celebrate this day, this post is limited to these three objectives:

Firstly, women and other non-male humans (read: everybody who refuses binary gender boxes) play a big role in local and international business – from production to consumption. The psychological and physical mistreatment, abuse and murdering of our fellow humans is not only disgrace, but also has economic costs for societies. From this economic perspective, it is evident: Women’s rights are everyone’s issue – also men’s. Since this is a Business and Human Rights platform, the second objective of my post will be to explain why women’s rights are everyone’s issue from a human rights angle.

After replying to “Why should we consider women’s rights in Business and Human Rights?”, my third point is to tackle “How should we do this?” My approach is twofold: firstly, we will learn from Inez McCormack how to look for those who are invisible and unrepresented. Secondly, I will introduce you to Active Listening. These two skills are very useful for everybody working on Business and Human Rights topics; from analysing stakeholder representation in political and corporate decision-making to better communicating with your conversation partners, be it NGOs or company representatives.

Why are Women’s Rights relevant for business?

There is growing literature on the economic consequences of gender inequality. Neither enterprises which are tax-payers and employers, nor ordinary citizens who also engage in social relationships with both perpetrators and victims can ignore these impacts. A typical example of the invisible costs caused by men abusing women is domestic violence – it is a well researched global problem.

Speaking specifically about business operations, there are numerous examples where women are the preferred employees: from textile manufacturing sectors, over the domestic realm including child-minding and cleaning, to sex work. This is generally due to the lower wage which women are paid – for reasons too complex to debate here (you are very welcome to contribute!). This has many consequences for families, and societies affected: when women join the labour force, they usually keep their domestic duties because there is nobody else to take over child-care, cooking and cleaning. Women regularly fulfill multiple tasks. How much money this multitasking is saving society becomes visible when women are no longer able to shoulder this weight, for instance due to illness or death.

What do Women’s Rights have to do with Human Rights?

In contrast to business, human rights are founded not on numbers, but on the moral concept of human dignity. At first sight, women’s rights are simply a sub-category of human rights: they specifically apply to women based on their biological sex and societal gender being different from what is regarded ‘normal’ – all those white humans who were born with male genitalia. The limited length of this post prevents any attempt explaining why white, heterosexual males are generally born with a power privilege superior to everyone else. A short word for this utterly weird and ubiquitous system is ‘Patriarchy’. Arguably, and risking the danger of falling deep into theoretical debates, the term ‘Kyriarchy’ is much better in explaining our shared reality – the institutional dimension which oppresses not only ‘all women’, but each individual in particular circumstances.

Since this post is dedicated to the International Women’s Day, our focus lies on those who identify with the female gender. Already the public and private debates on whether and why the 8th of March is (not) needed show: “women’s rights are human rights” is yet to be widely accepted.

In an attempt to increase respect for women’s rights, the United Nations launched a campaign to formally invite men to join the fight for women’s rights in 2014. Emma Watson’s speech for the HeForShe campaign is worth watching, as are the critical reactions to this speech. Watson invites all “men and boys to become advocates for change”. By principle, it is a very good idea to include those who currently hold power positions in the re-distribution of power.

I want to focus on her argument why boys and men should join: if men did no longer act within the patriarchy and were no longer victimized by the very same system themselves, women would also be free. Mia McKenzie expressed my point of criticism much better than I could:

 “Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women’s equality because [they are your] mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don’t already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings. It encourages men to think of women always and only in relation to themselves, as if our pseudo-humanity is only an after-thought of men’s real humanity. The truth is that women are whole, complete people, regardless of our status in the lives of men. This is what men should hear, over and over again. This is what everyone should hear, every day.”

Women deserve their rights to be respected because they are humans. Not because they can be placed in relationship to men. It is for the same reason that anyone tempted to say that boys and men also suffer from domestic abuse or from bad employment laws should seek – if necessary create – another space than the 8th of March. This does not negate the importance of fighting the oppression of all humans which can be found on so many intertwined levels. It simply says: International Women’s Day is the one day in the year which is dedicated to officially recognise women’s on-going struggle for being respected as humans.

Check the Noise: Which sound is absent?

We have now seen that even those lobbying for women’s rights do not necessarily get the basic concept that women deserve to enjoy their human rights simply due to their human dignity. It comes to no great surprise that women workers are generally regarded as being less important for business than their male counterparts. Clearly, many important actors on this planet do not pay much regard to the fact that women are complete human beings and are workers of equal importance as their male workers.

Obviously, it is easier to accept our world as it is: leave the messy work of questioning the subtle and often unconscious messages we all receive daily about women’s lesser value to “those crazy-headed individuals”. Do not stir up dirt by analysing company figures regarding how much less they pay their female workers, or how a company prefers male workers knowing that they do not need to think about child-care because they have wives at home. Even if you are only interested in solving a single one of the many Business and Human Rights problems, I guarantee you: you cannot go without feminism. Yes, it is tedious to debate relationships between men and women. But why? At its core it is tedious for the same reason as is tackling Business and Human Rights issues: you must speak about power and its distribution. There is no way to create an Alternative World if you are unwilling to rock the boat.

If you want to effectively challenge power structures, it would be extremely unwise to ignore the great amount of existing experience. In this post, I present you with two very useful skills which enable us to consider women’s rights in Business and Human Rights:

Firstly, I would like to introduce you to a great woman who has rocked some boats until very recently, the Irish trade unions Inez McCormack. She focused her work on those who are usually absent when decisions are made. For instance, hospital cleaning staff whose concerns are not represented at the negotiation table [excellent explanation at 19.20min]. When entering a situation, it is worth looking at everyone present – and considering who is absent. Equally important is questioning the reasoning behind this absence, such as claims that the opinion of the absent group(s) ‘is not necessary’ and/or ‘we already take good care of their interests’. McCormack founded a NGO which places the communities affected at the core: first and foremost, they are asked to express their opinion about what needs change and how to achieve this in concrete steps. They are given the space to create the sound which was absent among the noise [watch at 28.20min].

Intertwined with this idea to check for silence is the skill of Active Listening: once you have detected who is missing at the negotiation table, you need to engage with (a) them – and with (b) those in power in order to allow the previously absent group to join the debate. At this point, you are up against strong resistance. Usually those who already sit at the table have no interest in putting up an extra chair – and much more financial and/or military means than you can mobilise.

There is a great danger to get stuck at step (a) and never properly engage with the invisible group: if they do not feel respected and given space, they may refuse to take up any risks involved in demanding a seat. Or others start speaking for them. As well-meant as the latter often is, it misses the objective of changing power structures. Many lessons can be learned from the “but men”-problem: men join feminist debates stating that they experience similar struggles and thus re-direct the focus on themselves. This further marginalises those who struggle to articulate their voices. This issue can arise in any form of misunderstood representations – as “but white women”, or as “but we in the Western World”. As difficult as it is, active listening is the only respectful way to go and here is a short guide how to develop and practice them.

Active listening is not limited in its use for understanding women’s diverse experiences of inequality. It is a skill which everyone who wants to make a constructive change towards an Alternative World needs: active listening allows you to be in the very moment of the interaction; to realise what your conversation partner, be it a woman, a corporate lawyer, a government official or a campaigner is actually telling you – instead of relying on your prejudices and assumptions about that person, the content of their speech, and the result of the conversation. In a world where power is unevenly distributed, you need to identify common ground. This requires understanding where somebody is coming from and where they currently stand.

Stretching your mind so far out of the box that it starts to create a new world requires creativity. For a creative approach to explaining women’s daily life to men, I recommend this short movie. Involving boys and men in a struggle which is regularly regarded as a women-only problem is to be very much welcomed. Watch Jackson Katz’s TEDx talk explaining how and why men are commonly outside of discussions on so-called ‘women’s issues’ – and what to do about it. There are great initiatives by men participating in the struggle: from wearing skirts to holding up signs.

An excellent introduction to the intertwined relationship between women’s rights and Business and Human Rights is the movie Pray the Devil Back to Hell. This documentary shows how Christian and Muslim women united to pray for peace. They successfully coerced those who had political and military power to sign a peace agreement which ended the extremely violent civil war in Liberia. At first sight, the only Business and Human Rights issue in the movie appears to be the rivalry over access to Liberia’s natural resources between Charles Taylor, warlords and multinational companies, particularly for so-called ‘Blood Diamonds’. Women’s rights only appear to be an issue regarding the wide-spread use of ‘sexual violence as weapon of war’: both state forces and militias made it a strategy to rape girls and women with the explicit purpose of weakening the social fabrics of society; communities are eroded and families destroyed by the shame and marginalisation against the victims. The individual women are often unable to receive the necessary care to cope with their injuries, and suffer even more in case of unwanted pregnancies. They are rendered unable to provide the daily, unpaid services to their families, from child-minding to preparing food.

Against this background of pervasive sexual violence, the self-organisation of these women for peace is extraordinary. If we want to create a different world, studying how Christian and Muslim women united for non-violent public demonstrations in a war also thought of as religious conflict must definitely be on our collective ‘to-do-list’. Their reasoning to mobilise as women departed from the idea: a bullet does not differentiate between men and women. Neither does it distinguish between Christians and Muslims. At the table deciding over Liberia’s presence and future were only men – and they had no interest in peace, but in better access over resources for their own benefit. They made noise fighting against each other. Silent were the girls and women. In order to gain influence over the decision-making, they had to start making sounds – as an organised movement and independently from their faith. The women around Leymah Gbowee knew: if the movement praying for peace gained momentum, the current religious leaders would feel threatened. Also knowing that they had no resources to simply overcome their opposition, the women integrated religious power-holders into their endeavour: they asked all religious leaders for their blessing for the peace prayers. This integrative approach secured the support by men who were traditionally opposed to women in politics. During the peace accords, the peace women played a key role as informal negotiators: their listening to the different standpoints of the various warlords and their search for common ground is nothing else than very smartly done active listening. To this day, Leymah Gbowee and her team works on ensuring that women in Liberia are at the table when political decisions are made.

The peace agreement for Liberia clearly shows why women’s rights are relevant to both human rights, and to business – even if business needs to be understood in its widest sense: as the economic functioning of society including the invisible and unpaid labour shouldered by women in households. Awareness for who is absent at the table and active listening played a decisive role in creating and realising this peace agreement. These two skills can only be useful for all of us pushing for change.

Make sounds – and listen to the new noise! Happy International Women’s Day to everyone!

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