November 10, 2011 | Education, Health and Well-Being
Meeting Women Where They Are
Health Education on the Factory Floor
By Anna Louie Sussman
At four Primark garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the fabric scraps that lay on the cutting room floor were often repurposed on the sly. Female workers snatched them up and used them as improvised sanitary napkins, subsequently developing infections from the strong, toxic dyes and dirt present on the fabric. In addition to the pain and suffering they experienced, they were missing work. It was a phenomenon Racheal Yeager had seen throughout Asia.
Last year, Yeager, 29, arrived in Dhaka with a solution: HERproject, a yearlong factory-based health education program that works in partnership with local non-profit and medical service organizations, trains women to become peer educators and spread valuable information about basic hygiene and reproductive health care. The project, an initiative created by BSR, launched in 2007. It has so far reached approximately 100,000 women in more than 80 factories in eight countries in Asia and the Middle East HERproject counts as its participants some of the biggest names in the apparel and electronics industries, including Levi Strauss, Abercrombie and Fitch, J. Crew and HP, all of whom have a vested interest in ensuring their factories comply with international standards.
While there is no precise data available, women are thought to make up 60% to 80% of factory workers globally, a figure that can go even higher, depending on the country. Although most of the factories have clinics on-site, workers often arrive from rural villages, with little, if any, knowledge about preventing sickness, sexually transmitted diseases, or unwanted pregnancy. For these women, the biggest barrier to robust health is a lack of information. But with a demanding work schedule and little time off for school or doctor’s visits, there’s little opportunity for them to seek that information independently. HERproject brings it to the factory floor.
Yeager, who oversees HERproject worldwide, will typically kick off a program with a meeting between top-level factory management, clinic staff, representatives from the international brand, and representatives from local non-governmental organizations who will assist in service provision. Her biggest challenge is getting her foot in the door: factory owners are wary of being cited for labor violations, and reluctant to commit to something that sounds like a distraction.
“They want to know how much time is this going to take, what do you expect from us, what are you going to teach them about,” said Yeager. “They’re worried you’re going to take their best workers, the smartest and most talented ones, off the line.”
But when she presents the business case to them – reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, better employee-supervisor relations, and a potential $3 to $1 return on investment overall – she’s got them on board. With the help of the management or through a peer nomination process, HERproject identifies several leaders to become “health ambassadors.” The curriculum begins with topics like hand-washing and clean food preparation, moving on to more sensitive issues like family planning and reproductive health. Women congregate during their downtime, like a lunch break or their commutes, to learn from the peer educator.
The initial investment for each year-long program, around $5,000 to $7,000, comes from the brand who has contracted with the factory. HERproject also receives programmatic funding from the Levi Strauss Foundation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
It doesn’t take long to see the impact of the investment. In one factory in Karachi, Pakistan, merely by providing education about menstrual health, women reported a “25% reduction in poor concentration in work, 28% less absenteeism related to menstruation, and 33% less difficulty in meeting production targets,” according to HERproject’s findings. In a report from August 2011 on a factory in Ismailia, Egypt, 82% of women told HERproject that they had taken actions to improve their health, particularly in the areas of personal hygiene, menstrual hygiene and nutrition.
While Yeager is justifiably proud of the results on women’s health, she also sees HERproject as the beginning of a larger conversation around overall compliance. In a survey she did last year, 90% of the 14 multinational companies participating in HERproject reported that they’d seen improvement in terms of broader compliance at participating factory sites.
“Where there are some of these other questions, like wages, and over time and more standard labor rights issues, the brand can use our program to enhance their relationship in the conversations they have with their suppliers,” she said.
For the women, the leadership training and support network from the program boost not only their health, but also their confidence.
“How meaningful can a training on ‘You’re entitled to this wage,’ or ‘Your supervisor has to respect your bodily rights,’ be, when your mother never taught you about basic hygiene or your brother assaulted you when you were a teenager?” Yeager asked.
“You wouldn’t have the female workers standing up for some of these rights if they had a really low level of confidence to begin with.”
If factories provide safe, healthy working conditions, Yeager pointed out, there’s no reason to automatically deem them exploitative. When women work, they’re more likely to delay marriage and pregnancy, and their ability to bring home the bacon raises their status within their families or their communities.
“It really is the first opportunity for a cash income for a lot of these women,” she said. “Factories can be a very empowering force.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.