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‘Avoid gender tokenism to achieve substantive equality’, say UN business and human rights experts

26 June 2019

GENEVA (26 June 2019) - A group of United Nations experts* have urged governments and businesses to take transformative measures to eliminate discrimination against women and girls and achieve substantive gender equality in the context of business-related activities. In a new report to the UN’s Human Rights Council, the experts propose a gender framework and guidance which all states and businesses should consider in implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.   

“In all world regions, women and girls not only experience adverse impacts of business activities differently and disproportionally but also face additional barriers in seeking effective remedies to redress such impacts,” said the Chair of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Surya Deva. “However, both states and businesses are mostly ignoring these gender-differentiated impacts. This must change in favour of a gender-responsive approach.”

The experts highlighted business-related challenges faced by women: they are underrepresented in senior management positions and are impacted more by climate change. Women handle most care work, face pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination, and experience sexual harassment in all spheres of life. Marketing of products and services perpetuates gender stereotypes and objectifies women’s bodies. Women human rights defenders face additional risks in challenging business-related human rights abuses. New technologies might also impact women and girls more adversely.

“While there are some positive developments in mainstreaming gender in the business and human rights field, Governments and business enterprises must go beyond ‘gender tokenism’ and take concrete measures to ensure systematic changes to discriminatory power structures, social norms and hostile environments that are barriers to equal enjoyment of human rights by women and girls in all spheres.”  

The report by the Working Group – which has a mandate to promote the dissemination and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles – provides specific gender guidance for each of the 31 Principles. The report also lists steps that governments and businesses should take to integrate a gender perspective in implementing their respective human rights obligations and responsibilities under the Guiding Principles.

The Working Group report emphasises that governments and business should ensure meaningful participation of women and women’s organisations in their efforts to accomplish an equal enjoyment of human rights by women and girls. 

“States and businesses should also recognise that women and girls are not a homogenous group, as they suffer from intersecting and multiple forms of discrimination,” Deva said.

“Addressing discrimination against women and girls in a business context is not only an integral part of States’ obligations under international human rights law, it is also imperative in the context of the 2030 Agenda and its commitment to leave no one behind. Moreover, businesses cannot respect human rights of women and girls unless they contribute to achieving substantive gender equality.”

The UN Working Group’s report follows a two-year engagement process with a range of stakeholders around the world. The Working Group is also compiling good practice examples of how States and businesses are addressing gender discrimination in the business and human rights field.


* The UN Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (known as the Working Group on Business and Human Rights) was established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011 to promote worldwide dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Working Group is composed of five independent experts, of balanced geographical representation. Its current members are: Mr. Surya Deva (Chairperson), Ms. Elżbieta Karska (Vice-Chairperson), Mr. Githu Muigai, Mr. Dante Pesce, and Ms. Anita Ramasastry.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 (resolution 17/4), provide the authoritative global standard for action to safeguard human rights in a business context, clarifying what is expected by governments and companies to prevent and address impacts on human rights arising from business activity.

The Working Group and Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

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