Three reasons why the UK National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights should prioritise gender

by 03rd Sep 2013
Bangladeshi women taking part in CARE's Strengthening Dairy Value Chains programme Bangladeshi women taking part in CARE's Strengthening Dairy Value Chains programme © CARE

This week the UK government takes the historic step of becoming one of the first institutions to make an official statement on how companies should operationalize the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, more commonly known as the Ruggie Principles. Leading the process to formalize the ambitious but sometimes vague standards laid out in the Principles deserves to be applauded. However, because it is the first such initiative, and one that both governments and business will look to in order to judge the long-term viability of much of the business and human rights agenda, there is heavy pressure to get it right.

Asides from looking to give the guidance legal enforcement (another blog on this to follow), if the National Action Plan does one thing to clarify the role of the business and human rights, it should be this: prioritize gender.

There are three reasons why the plan should do prioritize gender: first, the there is a strong case within the Principles themselves, second, because it would support the UK’s stated approach to empowering women and girls in its international development programming, and third, because it is necessary for the other aspects of the Principles to be achieved. Let’s take these in turn.

  1. As I have noted previously, there is both a business case and a legal case for business to empower women. The Ruggie Principles specifically lay out several reasons why companies need to put gender front and centre to comply with international standards. Here’s the rationale: despite the sometimes indeterminate requirements in the Principles, there are two definite requirements for all businesses: to respect and remedy human rights. Respecting human rights, the Principles go on to state, requires a due diligence process to identify areas of high risk. There is one risk that will arise quickly from any system adopted: women’s rights. While the nature of the challenge varies across geographies and industries, discrimination against women is a universal factor, and thus a universal risk. In fact, Pillar II of the Principles explicitly names women as a group “that require[s] particular attention”. Any guidelines that the UK government sets out that do not recognize this element of the Principles will be incomplete.

  2. The National Action Plan needs to prioritize gender to be consistent with the UK’s stated approach to international development. Department for International Development Minister Justine Greening has also renewed DfID’s gender focus and emphasized in a recent speech that gender equality is:

    “…a matter of universal, basic human rights. It is about girls’ and women’s right to have control over their own bodies, to have a voice in their community and country; to live a life free of the fear of violence; to choose who to marry and when; it’s about their right to be in education, which gives them a chance of productive work, and a chance to choose how they spend that money they earn”.

    Prioritizing gender within the National Action Plan would make sure both development and human rights approaches are in line.

  3. Finally, the National Action Plan needs to lay out clear expectations for companies in regards to gender because without doing so the rest of the Principles will not be adequately fulfilled. Every organization from the UN and World Bank to McKinsey and Deloitte have presented evidence that gender equality is not only an end unto itself, but also a prerequisite to achieving broader development and rights aspirations.

Between the business, legal, and moral cases for companies to empower women, it would be nice to say that there is no further need for the National Action Plan to be explicit in directing companies on how to address gender. Unfortunately, that is not the current reality. However, by setting standards for what companies must do to protect the human rights of women, the UK government has the opportunity to bring the human rights of women into the mainstream.

Alexa Roscoe

Alexa was formerly a Private Sector Advisor with CARE International, designng and evaluating inclusive business programming with the UK Department for International Development, the European Union, and private sector partners in the global food and beverage, garment, and finance industries.

Alexa’s experience ranges across the public, private and non-profit sectors and 30 countries worldwide. Previously she worked in ethical sourcing with the extractives industry consultancy Estelle Levin Ltd. and with the Skoll Award-winning social enterprise Verite. Alexa holds a MSc Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

You can follow Alexa's personal Twitter account at @AlexaRoscoe or connect with her on LinkedIn.