Protecting Women's Rights in Southeast Asian Commodity Supply Chains
11 September 2023
Companies and other supply chain actors in Southeast Asia can use the consensus-based Accountability Framework to protect the rights of women workers.
Across Southeast Asia, agriculture and forestry provide jobs and support livelihoods. These sectors also supply the world with products including cocoa, coconut, palm oil, rubber, timber, and more. However, as the region has grown to become a major player in the agricultural commodities market, women's rights have not always been respected as called for in the Accountability Framework.
Risks to women’s rights
Today, women's rights violations in Southeast Asia's agricultural and forestry sectors remains common. For example, women often participate in high-risk activities without proper protective equipment. These activities can include working with hazardous chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides. Exposure to these dangers can be detrimental to women’s health, especially those who are pregnant. Additionally, women are often classified as casual daily workers, known as kernet, or voluntary workers, which denies them the protections other workers receive.
Women in Southeast Asia are also often denied land rights, which significantly affects the their ability to participate in decision-making that directly affects them and their families. For example, a study on land ownership in West Kalimantan, Indonesia describes how palm oil plots that were originally owned by women are registered to husbands after their marriages. As the registered owners of the plots, men have control over income received from harvesting the palm oil. Also, when palm oil plots are sold to companies, women are rarely involved in decision making.
While working on farms or in forests, women also often need protection from sexual harassment. A 2017 study found that in the oil palm plantations of West Sumatra, two women are victims of sexual violence every week. As victims usually keep these experiences secret and do not report them to the women's centre or local government, it is difficult to know the full extent of sexual harassment in these sectors.
Addressing risks with the Accountability Framework
Women’s rights are universally recognised, and companies are therefore obligated to address them in their operations and supply chains. As such, the Accountability Framework considers human rights, including women’s rights, to be an essential part of ethical supply chains.
Additionally, when women have a safe space, fair opportunities, and rights at work, companies can boost their performance. A 2019 International Labor Organization study shows that companies that provide equal space for all genders have the potential to increase profitability and productivity by as much as 62.6%.
Recognising that protecting the rights of women workers has a positive impact on all parties, it is important for companies to strengthen their policies and practices. To do this, companies and other supply chain actors can use the consensus-based Accountability Framework. It draws from international human rights laws and other instruments to guide companies on good practices.
There are additional resources available to help companies protect the rights of workers, including women workers, such as
- ILO (2011): Safety and Health in Agriculture
- Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and International Service for Human Rights (2018): Shared Space Under Pressure - Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders. Guidance for Companies
- UN Women (2021) The Women Empowerment Principles (WEPs) Transparency & Accountability Framework
- UN Women (2022): Gender Responsive Business Guideline
- UN Women and ILO Guidance (2022): A Guide to Tackling Workplace Violence and Harassment in Indonesia
- Verite’s tools related to fair hiring, responsible sourcing, and labor rights
To get started with the Accountability Framework, visit our pages for companies and download our topic summary on human rights. For individualised support with applying the Framework, contact the AFi team.