Low-wage female factory workers often suffer from anaemia, poor hygiene and other health problems. Through the education programme HERproject, they are provided with information on how to improve their situation.
The majority of workers in the garment industry are young women – migrant workers that have moved from the countryside to work in the factories. Their educational level is extremely low and their knowledge of health issues is very limited. Having moved from their villages they have missed out on any health awareness programmes run by community based organisations and since they work such long hours they cannot be reached by NGOs operating in urban areas. Neither are they surrounded by female relatives that can talk to them about reproductive health.
That is why Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a business membership association with 300 member companies around the world, initiated a project to bridge the gap between female factory workers and health NGOs. HERproject is a factory-based education programme targeting young women working in factories in Asia and Africa. They receive training on topics such as hygiene, family planning, maternal health, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS and food and nutrition.
“One of the most common problems we encounter when we go into factories has to do with menstrual hygiene. In the villages the girls sometimes use cloths that they wash and reuse. But in the towns they live in slums with narrow alleys and dark rooms and there is little opportunity to hang the cloths to dry”, said Nazneen C Huq, the HERproject Country Manager for Bangladesh.
Instead, they take a handful of the textile waste that is piled up on the floor in garment factories and use as sanitary protection. But the waste might be dirty or full of mould and insects, which leads to rashes and infections that can have long-term effects on their health.
“These are topics that girls in our culture don’t talk about. But when we started talking about certain symptoms that they had, they were mostly due to this textile waste. As they understand that this is the cause they switch to better practices”, Nazneen C Huq said.
At most factories where the project is operating sanitary napkins can now be bought at a subsidized price.
Due to their very low wages many factory workers see nutritious food as a luxury out of their reach, but HERproject provides information on nutritious food that is inexpensive.
“They are very happy that they can provide their children with nutrition even if they don’t have much money, and they use this knowledge extensively”, Nazneen C Huq said.
The training is given by other factory workers – peer educators that have been trained by local NGOs to educate their female colleagues about sexual and reproductive health. At some factories the training is done monthly, at others weekly. Some factories give the female workers time off for the training, others use the lunch hour, and some use the commute to work. Not all factories allow for training on paid time.
“Each individual factory designs its own programme, to make sure that it won’t be a short-term fix. We want every factory to have as much ownership as possible”, said Racheal Yeager, the HERproject Global Programme Manager based in the United States.
HERproject works together with 21 multinational participants in eight countries in Asia and Africa, which nominate factories to participate. Some fifty projects are ongoing and the same number has been finished. After the 12-month project is over the idea is that the activities will be maintained by the factories – and so far more than 80 percent has maintained at least some of the activities.
One of the participants is Swedish fashion retailer Lindex, which earlier this year launched the project in one of the factories that the company uses in Bangladesh. Corporate Social Compliance Manager Ingrid Porss describes it as a win-win-situation for the factory owners – while the health of the women is improved the project has also proved to have business values such as reduced absenteeism and turnover and higher productivity.
“This is a good example of a project that allows us make a difference for many people at once. Not just the women’s lives are improved but they also inform their friends, influence their husbands and have the possibility to take better care of their children”, Ingrid Porss added.
Another Swedish company participating is H&M through factories in Indonesia.
The factory programmes are co-funded by the multinational brands and the factory owners. Overhead costs such as capacity building, monitoring and evaluation, the development of training resources etc are funded by Sida and the Levi Strauss Foundation.
Since HERproject was started in 2007 the programme has reached more than 120,000 female workers and more than 25,000 males in factories around the world. However the impact is far greater as an average 80 percent of workers report sharing the health information outside the factory walls.
Now the methodology is being expanded to the agriculture and horticulture sector in Sub-Saharan Africa, targeting industries like flower farms and vegetable farms that are also dominated by young female workers.
Two US$ 1 million grants, for 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 respectively.
Achieve widespread impacts on women’s sexual and reproductive health through workplace training programmes.
- HERproject has been implemented in over 150 factories across nine countries reaching over 200,000 women
- 80 % of female factory workers interviewed say that have shared the information with families and friends
- In 2012, 32 of 39 participating factories had maintained women’s health activities after HERproject was completed
Examples of health impacts:
- In China, the percentage of workers who use condoms with irregular partners increased from 61 % to 86 %
- In Pakistan and Bangladesh, familiarity with Hepatitis B increased from 19 % to 68 %