On March 8 the world’s attention was focused on celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women under the global theme “Making it Happen for Women”. The 2015 celebrations highlighted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action signed in 1995 that set the way forward for realising women’s rights. Despite the many gains made there are still gaps particularly where women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) are concerned.
AIDS is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age and contributes significantly to maternal mortality. The major modes of HIV transmission in Southern Africa are sexual intercourse and mother to child transmission and as such SRHR are central to addressing HIV. A holistic focus on prevention of HIV infection, unwanted pregnancies, maternal morbidity and mortality as well as promotion and protection of human rights of women through universal access to integrated SRH and HIV services is necessary for sustainable economic and social development.
SWHAP and its partners commemorated International Women’s Day through training and networking activities that saw Peer Educators and Occupational Health Practitioners in Kenya and South Africa respectively coming together to discuss how their workplace programmes could implement targeted initiatives to address the sexual and reproductive health concerns of women in their workforces and communities. In Zambia Atlas Copco, SKF and Sandvik in Kitwe conducted joint community outreach. In Botswana SWHAP partnered with Scania, UNAIDS and the ILO to host a dialogue on women’s SRH. Over 70 women attended the dialogue entitled “Celebrating Women’s Health”. The event was a great example of public-private public partnership in addressing HIV and women’s health. There was input from the Scania Botswana CEO, Freddie Hennop, the UNAIDS Director Regional Support Team Eastern and Southern Africa, Professor Sheila Tlou, as well as representatives from the Ministry of Health, business coalitions and the National AIDS Coordinating Agency.
During the dialogue participants had the opportunity to participate in VCT and biometric testing
Why should companies be interested in women’s SRHR?
Ignoring the sexual and reproductive health needs of employees can have serious effects on productivity at the workplace with employees taking time off due to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV, opportunistic infections, and reproductive cancers such as cervical cancer.
According to UNFPA “reproductive health programmes can reduce levels of STDs, including HIV, by providing information and counselling on critical issues such as sexuality, gender roles, power imbalances between women and men, gender-based violence and its link to HIV transmission, and mother-to-child transmission of HIV; distributing female and male condoms; diagnosing and treating” STIs.
A 2011 study by Levi Strauss (HERproject: Health Enables Returns) found that establishing women’s health programmes in factory settings reduced absenteeism, turnover, and error rates. Programmes yielded a return on investment of US$4:US$1 in the form of absenteeism and turnover rates. Over 80% of workers took actions to improve their health based on the information that they received at the workplace.
How can workplaces promote SRHR for all women?
1. Provide information and access to services
In 2013 SKF Zambia organised a breast cancer and cervical cancer wellness day at their premises for female employees and male employee’s spouses. The purpose of the wellness day was to raise awareness on cervical and breast cancer, discuss vulnerability factors and treatment options as well as interaction with HIV and AIDS. The company provided on site screening for 25 women during working hours. Breast cancer and cervical cancer are two of the leading causes of cancer death in women in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNAIDS).
2. Create enabling environments that promote gender equity, address gender based violence and promote programmes that encourage girls to stay in school longer.
Finding qualified women to join the information and communication technology (ICT) sector is a challenge faced by Ericsson Kenya. Ericsson is part of a global initiative Girls in ICT Day that aims to encourage young women to follow ICT related career paths. The company mentors 20 girls from under privileged schools in Nairobi. As part of the mentorship process the girls also receive training on sexual and reproductive health and wellness. Providing adolescents with comprehensive age appropriate information on sexual and reproductive health has been shown to delay sexual debut as well as promote responsible sexual behaviour. It is hoped the programme will encourage the young women to stay in school longer, increasing their chances of earning higher wages. Educating girls has been identified as one of the best solutions to reversing the trend of poverty in Africa.
3. Provide social support such as support for orphans through Corporate Social Responsibility programmes.
Many workplaces within the SWHAP network include support to orphans and vulnerable children as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility Programmes. Examples among many include the support and mentorship to SOS Children’s Villages by Sandvik Zimbabwe and Metso South Africa.