Trade unions are vital in the struggle to end violence against women and girls

It is not women who caused the global economic crisis, yet it is women who are paying the highest price all over the world.

Less job security, public service cuts, threats to hard fought for gains on women’s equality, and increasing fear for the future – all are making the struggle to end violence against women and girls harder, but also even more of a priority.

As chair of the Global ITUC Women’s Committee, representing 70 million working women in trade unions (40 per cent of the global trade union movement and growing), I know how determined we are to speak out, to break the silence on violence against women and girls, and to take action now at every level we can to make a difference.

With one out of every three girls born today facing some form of violence in her lifetime, this year of all years, with the largest ever United Nations assembly on ending gender-based violence meeting right now at the UNCSW (Commission on the Status of Women) we have a chance to do just that.

The UNCSW needs to reach agreed conclusions, with no back-tracking on past commitments (see union blog on the Uncsw).

The growth of the informal economy, of more precarious ways of working, has particularly changed women’s working lives – making them more vulnerable to abuse, reducing or even removing their legal rights to challenge exploitation.

That’s why the struggle to end violence against women and girls goes hand in hand with the struggle for decent work.

A woman’s right to work, and to work free from violence, harassment and abuse and the threat of violence, is a basic human right. It is not enough just to say this, important though that is, we also need action – so as well as campaigning for new rights and government support, internationally, unions are taking action now, at work, where we can :

  • Negotiating Dignity at Work policies and procedures with employers to prevent and deal with sexual and other harassment, bullying and violence at work
  • Negotiating Domestic Violence policies and support too. I know of one example in an engineering factory of mainly women workers, where two women used the policy immediately and two others said that if only it had been in place years ago, their lives could have been so different
  • Giving women confidence if they speak out that they are not alone – through workplace awareness campaigns and agreeing groundbreaking schemes like elected union equality reps and union women’s advocates independently trained by the union, but recognised by the employer
  • Setting up union education for all on harassment and violence at work, and making sure the employers are training their managers too, and taking action against those responsible for or colluding with harassment and abuse
  • Campaigning together on 25th November the International day to End Violence against Women and Girls – women in trade unions speaking out, men in trade unions pledging their support
  • Making sure when we speak out across the world, we include women workers and girls who are isolated such as those travelling to and from work very early or very late, those collecting water, domestic workers and cleaners; women targeted for additional abuse, such as young women workers, disabled women, women facing racism, lesbian, bisexual, trans women; and women facing workplace exploitation including in export processing zones and on zero hours contracts

Domestic workers and migrant domestic workers have been particularly recognised worldwide as being at risk of violence, abuse, harassment, rape and serious exploitation.

The ILO (International Labour Organisation) agreed in 2011 a Convention on Domestic Workers, following a major campaign involving the international trade union movement, particularly the IUF (Global Union Federation which represents domestic workers) and the ITUC (which brings together trade union confederations across the world), and is now campaigning hard for countries to sign up.

Domestic workers are speaking out, and as well as forming domestic workers unions, they are joining unions like Unite, and campaigning jointly with domestic workers’ support organisations, Amnesty International, Anti-Slavery and others.

This is a powerful message of how those who have faced some of the most serious abuse can lead the way and empower others. Trade unions are vital in the struggle to end violence against women and girls. Trade union women activists are powerful and effective leaders at all levels in the workplace and community. They are making a difference that is too often undervalued and unrecognised. International Women’s Day is the time to commit to change this.