Ever since Al Gore was focused on NAFTA, not climate change, debate has raged over whether globalization has helped or hurt workers, communities, and national economies. One question in particular has been front and center: what about the treatment of workers in the thousands of factories that made products for western consumers? But too often, the particular needs of women driving the global economy have been overlooked.
Today, on International Women's Day, perhaps it's time to think about the fate of the millions of women - often aged between 16 and 25 - who now make the clothes, toys and electronics we buy, and who toil in the fields that produce the tomatoes and flowers that land on our kitchen tables.
For many of these women, export-related jobs are the best opportunity to gain a foothold in the formal economy. This is why so many women have taken the risk of migrating to big cities is to step out of poverty, and have stepped away from traditional rural lives that offer little chance for autonomy.
And while the need to prevent mistreatment is clear, we shouldn't overlook how we can make this step into formal employment an opportunity for economic and social advancement. The HER Project (http://www.bsr.org/reports/BSR_HERproject_Investing_In_Women.pdf) marks this 100th International Women's Day with a new report that shows how to make this happen.
When women migrate from rural to urban environments, often very far from their families and support systems, and enter the formal workforce for the first time, they are often without access to health care. They work very long hours in countries whose public health care systems are patchy at best. They also have very distinct reproductive health care needs which, if unmet, can be a matter of life and death.
The HER Project ("HER" means "Health Enables Returns) has delivered information and access to health care for 50,000 women from India to China to Egypt. Two key assumptions underlie the project. First, the presence of such large numbers of women in export factories around the world actually presents a unique opportunity - often largely ignored - for social and economic development. Second, there is a strong business case for enabling women to access quality health care. The combination of these two ideas means that global trade can be something other than a race to the bottom.
According to a 2010 McKinsey study, among companies who invest in programs targeting women in developing countries, at least one-third have measured improved profits, and an additional 38 percent are expecting returns. Speaking about this phenomenon at last year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Nike President and CEO Mark Parker called young women in the developing world "a powerful force for social and economic change." Companies like Nordstrom, Ambercrombie & Fitch and others have been central to the success of this project.
The project works closely with NGOs, but also aims to build women-to-women networks to offer support, guidance and access. In Mexico's Pegatron Juárez factory, 47 peer educators were trained, enabling them to provide information to a workforce of over 1000. One of these peer educators noted the "personal satisfaction of learning new things and being able to use that knowledge to help others."
But the real power of this effort is the multiplication effect that empowered women can have. The project aims to raise health awareness, change health behavior, and provide access. But equally important, it is designed to promote cultural change and grow leaders.
The words of the women who have contributed, benefitted and grown thanks to this project are the best testament to the vision and the achievements of HER Project. Samira el-Sayed, a peer educator in Egypt, said "I value this knowledge and believe that it is my duty to pass on the messages I am blessed with. ... I started talking to other women on the bus, at the mosque, at the market, and anywhere else I could reach."
Women are writing much of the history of the globalized economy. Let's take a moment today to recommit to efforts like the HER Project that help women shape and capture the human potential - and dignity - of our integrated world.