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Women and men chop yams into a sack in a field

This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • Gender equality
  • Decent work and economic growth

Promoting safety for women

Violence and discrimination can blight women’s lives and hold them back from playing a full part in the workplace, society and the economy. We’re taking action to improve women’s rights and safety in the communities in which we operate.

A smiling woman carrying a basket against an African sunset

Safe working cultures, stronger communities

We’re committed to respecting and promoting women’s rights, which includes the right to safety of women and girls.

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1 in 3 Women have suffered physical or sexual violence in their lifetime

Harassment is one of the eight salient human rights issues we’ve identified for our business. Women have the right to be free from violence, harassment and discrimination and removing the barriers of an unsafe environment can help women fulfil their potential as individuals and as contributors to work, communities and economies. But the World Health Organization estimates that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

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2% Of global GDP: the cost of violence against women

While it’s hard to put a price on the emotional and physical impact of violence on women’s health and wellbeing, research suggests the cost of violence against women each year is around US$1.5 trillion – that’s an estimated 2% of global GDP.

The importance of protecting women’s rights is recognised in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly those on Gender Equality (SDG 5) and Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8).

We’re promoting safety for women in our workplaces and our extended supply chain. Our aim is to implement policies and processes that women trust, with an emphasis on addressing the harmful social and cultural norms and behaviours that can leave women at risk. This is a moral obligation, and we know it’s essential if our business is to maintain the trust and reputation we aspire to.

Leena Nair profile photo

A thriving society is one where everyone has equal access to rights, skills and opportunities.

Leena Nair, our Chief HR Officer

Zero tolerance of harassment

Our key policies

Zero tolerance of any form of discrimination, including sexual harassment, is embedded in the policies that govern our operations and value chains. These include our Code of Business Principles (PDF 4.75MB), our Respect, Dignity and Fair Treatment Code Policy (PDF 166KB), our Responsible Sourcing Policy (PDF 8.25MB) and our Responsible Business Partner Policy (PDF 7.79MB).

We continue to revise and evolve our codes in order to address specific forms of harassment, including policies covering sexual harassment, child protection and violence prevention. In 2020 we introduced our Global Domestic Violence and Abuse Policy (PDF 115KB) alongside a learning programme for our employees.

Combating violence and discrimination

As well as our wider work in addressing inequality and challenging harmful gender norms, we work closely with partners, including suppliers, to address women’s safety and combat discrimination. This work is underpinned by our:

  • policies and codes of conduct
  • Code of Business Principles compliance and performance management systems
  • grievance mechanisms, awareness-raising and training.

Combating domestic violence

Domestic violence can be physical or psychological, and it can affect anyone of any age, gender, race or sexual orientation. Alongside the physical and emotional toll, there is a significant economic impact. Loss of income, absenteeism and a fall in productivity financially impacts individuals and their families as well as society at large. Yet despite these human and societal costs, domestic violence often goes unreported due to fear and stigma.

We want to create a workplace culture where people know they can access support safely and securely, so that employees can seek help without stigma and where staff have access to basic training to know how to respond appropriately if they feel a colleague is potentially at risk. That’s why we introduced our Global Domestic Violence and Abuse Policy (PDF 115KB) which details access to ‘safe leave’, flexible working conditions and support services.

To mark International Women’s Day in March 2021 we offered open access to our policy to other businesses and organisations. Our Chief Brand Officer and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Aline Santos, also hosted a LinkedIn live event with the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke. The event saw the launch of #Unmute, a campaign urging action to end the silence on domestic violence.

Joko tea: taking action in South Africa

#EndDomesticSilence

In South Africa, one in five women has experienced physical violence, and 60,000 women and children are victims of domestic violence. Joko’s #EndDomesticSilence campaign is an initiative in partnership with POWA (People Opposing Women Abuse) to make a significant impact on ending the silence surrounding domestic violence. Founded on the link between tea and conversations, Joko donates R1 to POWA from every Joko 100s pack sold to create more safe spaces.

In November 2020, Joko announced its support for the international 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence campaign to urge government to accelerate the passing of three pieces of proposed legislation to protect women and children from domestic violence. Joko’s website provides essential information on domestic violence and advice on how to either get or to give help: www joko.co.za.

Joko campaign poster stating Add Your to Yoice to #End Domestic Silence

Partnerships to promote women’s safety

We work with partners from a wide range of sectors, including government authorities, UN Women and other UN agencies, women’s organisations, suppliers and others. A good example of collaboration is our partnership with UN Women EVAW (Ending Violence Against Women) which is designed to develop a human rights-based intervention programme across our tea supply chain.

The programme aims to ensure that women and girls are socially, economically and politically empowered, which includes freeing them from violence. It began with a progress review of our women’s safety programme in our tea plantation in Kericho, Kenya. We then extended it to a supplier partnership in Assam, India.

We’re continuing our efforts to promote safety. Violence against women and girls has increased by 20% since Covid-19 hit, leading to UN Women calling it a ‘shadow pandemic’. In 2020, we supported women’s rights organisations on awareness-raising initiatives on Covid-19 and on violence against women and girls in Kenya, Tanzania and Assam. We also extended our women’s safety programme to Rwanda.

Our most recent initiative is in India, where we’ve started a new partnership with IDH to create a safe and empowering workplace for women.

Women’s Safety Accelerator Fund

The Women’s Safety Accelerator Fund (PDF 476KB) is a bold new programme to address women’s safety and gender-based violence in the Indian tea sector.

The impact fund has been set up in partnership by Unilever and IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, and will support tea producers and local implementation partners to set up mechanisms to address gender-based violence, strengthen prevention and support women’s empowerment in the tea gardens.

It aims to impact 200,000 women workers on almost 300 tea estates in Assam by the end of 2023.

The Fund is one of the latest steps we’ve taken to promote change through policies, programmes and advocacy for industry-wide action.

A track record of commitment

1995 - Code of Business Principles introduced, containing zero tolerance of discrimination

2000 - Founder member of the UN Global Compact

2011 - Endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

2013 - Endorsed the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles

2016 - Announced our partnership UN Women EVAW (Ending Violence Against Women)

2016 - Signed agreement with unions IndustriALL and IUF committing to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace

2017 - Established new partnership in Assam with UN Women and our supplier McLeod Russel to strengthen women’s rights on tea estates

2018 - With our support, UN Women created a Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces (PDF 6.53MB)

2019 - Published Guide to Support the Implementation of the Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces

2020 - Introduced our Global Domestic Violence and Abuse Policy (PDF 115KB) and with IDH, created the Women’s Safety Accelerator Fund (PDF 476KB)

2021 - Marked International Women’s Day by offering open access to our Global Domestic Violence and Abuse Policy

A framework for women’s safety

As a result of work in Assam and experience in Kenya, UN Women, with our support, created A Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces (PDF 6.53MB). This was published in December 2018 and is being made available to the global tea industry and other value chains, supported by a practical Guide on implementation. Looking ahead, the palm oil industry will be our next focus for rolling out the Framework.

Working in Assam

Women make up half of Assam’s 6 million-strong tea workforce and perform the crucial, labour intensive task of plucking tea leaves. But they are too often subjected to violence and further denied their rights by inadequate, or non-existent, grievance mechanisms and safe spaces. At the same time, men dominate the better-paid clerical and managerial positions in the plantations, with promotional opportunities denied to women. We’ve set up a partnership to address this violence.

Addressing gender-based violence in Assam

Although we do not own tea estates in Assam, they are a vital part of our supply chain. Working with our suppliers, we began a new programme in Assam’s Udalguri District in 2017. Its aim is to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, including sexual harassment in tea estates and surrounding communities. Leadership is important in this effort, as our Procurement Manager Daleram Gulia explains, “Women workers are our most valuable resource. They are also someone’s daughter, mother or sister. Safety and feeling safe is a basic human right in a place of work – and in all spaces. Everyone should be treated with respect.”

The partnership between Unilever, UN Women and our supplier McLeod Russel is part of Unilever’s global partnership with UN Women. Our programme in Assam builds on existing initiatives to strengthen women’s rights in the tea estates, such as mothers’ clubs and adolescent girls’ clubs, and takes a step-by-step approach to include the community. For example, we’ve set up Women Empowerment Clubs in six tea estates, training women on the prevention and response to domestic violence, civil recourse through national laws, and on sexual harassment in the workplace. These women are now the change agents in their estates and run awareness-raising sessions.

The programme aims to create systemic change by addressing gender inequality and fostering a multi-stakeholder approach to end gender-based violence. It helps to create sustained change by promoting favourable social norms, attitudes and behaviours to prevent violence against women, for example through comprehensive prevention programmes for elementary school children in the estates. So far, we’ve reached around 15,000 workers directly and 296,000 indirectly.

Breaking the Silence: a partnership between Unilever and UN Women in India explains the details of this holistic approach to addressing gender-based violence. Experience in Assam will help inform the creation of a sustainable model that further promotes women’s safety and can be used in other regions and countries.

Women tea pickers pluck tea from a hillside estate

Our Safety for Women & Girls Programme, Kenya

Our largest tea estate is in Kericho, Kenya. It covers over 8,700 hectares of land and employs around 10,000 workers during the peak tea-picking season. In 2013, we commissioned an extensive independent review following allegations of sexual harassment there in 2010 and 2013. We have implemented the review’s recommendations at Kericho and created our Safety for Women & Girls Programme.

The programme includes expanding and strengthening our management team and increasing the proportion of female team leaders. We’ve instituted policies on sexual harassment, child protection, and violence prevention and management, all developed with the participation of local employees and community representatives. And we’ve conducted different types of training for management, employees, village elders and specialised groups such as medical personnel. We’ve also improved our grievance reporting process with a dedicated, confidential, toll-free and local language hotline. Our monthly Friday Safety Talks focus on sexual harassment and related topics. More than 11,400 women had been able to access the programme by 2020.

We’re ensuring that all workers in Kericho – women and men – know how to report any cases of violence, harassment, or human rights abuses, and understand that they’re supported by Unilever and protected by the law.

Winfridah Nyakwara, our Social Sustainability Manager, Africa and South Asia

UN Women carried out a progress review of this programme as part of our partnership to develop A Global Framework on Women’s Safety in Rural Spaces (PDF 6.53MB). They’re advising us on behaviour and social norms change interventions and are working with smallholder farmers too. This has helped to strengthen our programme and adapt it to other countries and regions.

An industry-wide approach

Close up view of tea bushes on a mountain landscape

To promote an industry-wide commitment to tackle safety in the tea sector in Kenya, we supported the formation of the Gender Empowerment Platform. Led by IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, it exchanges best practices and shares knowledge, bringing together Kenya’s biggest tea-producing companies and relevant civil society. The platform will help tea to become the first agricultural supply chain in Kenya to address and develop solutions to gender-based violence-related issues.

We’re also working with the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), and our supplier, the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), which is the largest tea producer in Kenya with 66 factories and more than half a million smallholder farmers. Through ETP’s partnership with the KTDA, around 1,000 managers, supervisors and members of staff (out of a total KTDA workforce of 9,000) have been trained on stopping discrimination and harassment.

Our work on safety in Kericho is detailed in our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF 9.45MB).

Working with unions

We also work with partners to prevent sexual harassment in our operations. As part of our joint working group on diversity, Unilever, the IUF union and IndustriALL made a commitment to tackle sexual harassment. One of the outcomes of this working group was a booklet called No Place for Sexual Harassment at Unilever (PDF 959KB), produced by the IUF. This is designed to help IUF members understand the roles of workers, unions and management in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. In tandem, we ran a range of initiatives across our sites to promote greater awareness and enhance training.