The Impact of COVID-19 on The Circle’s Projects

Image: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Marginalised people can become even more vulnerable in global health emergencies such as the current COVID-19 pandemic due to a number of factors including limited access to health services. Previous epidemics have illustrated that primary caregivers to the ill are predominately women and that women and girls experience increased risks of gender-based violence including sexual exploitation.

“We know that when emergencies hit, women and girls come last” 

There are a number of factors that put women and girls at disproportionate risk in public health emergencies, including:

  • Women make up large parts of the health workforce;
  • Primary caregivers to the ill are predominately women. This caregiving burden is likely to cause their physical and mental health to suffer and impede their access to education, livelihood sources, and other critical support;
  • Women are more likely to be engaged in the informal sector and be hardest hit economically by COVID-19;
  • Women experience increased risks of gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation;
  • Cultural factors may exclude women from decision-making spaces and restrict their access to information on outbreaks and availability of services;
  • Women might experience interrupted access to sexual and reproductive health services, including to family planning;
  • In some cultural contexts, gender roles may dictate women cannot obtain health services independently or from male service providers.

Social isolation policies can also put a disproportionate pressure on women and girls due to:

  • Additional childcare responsibilities, that more commonly fall on women;
  • Women and girls who are in abusive relationships may be unable to leave a dangerous environment;
  • Services supported survivors of violence are unable to offer shelter or in person counselling sessions.

We are fully aware that there will be some disruptions to what we and our project partners want to accomplish over the coming months. However, both they and us are taking measures to ensure that our teams and the beneficiaries are supported in their work and that the risks are minimised as much as possible. It goes without saying how proud and inspired we are by the unending commitment, flexibility and drive that is being shown by everyone to ensure our impactful projects continue as best they can. Saying that, we want to keep you as informed as possible about this issue and what the impact may be on marginalised women and girls around the globe.

Violence Against Women and Girls

Public health, the economy, and women and girls’ safety and bodily autonomy are inextricably linked.

Social Development Direct, following a request from the UK Department for International Development, reviewed the evidence of how COVID-19 might impact on violence against women and girls and lessons learnt from recent epidemics.

Emerging evidence suggests that COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to increase the risks of:

  • Domestic violence, with police reports in China showing that domestic violence tripled during the epidemic.
  • Violence against healthcare workers, due to the serious stress that the pandemic places on patient, their relatives and other healthcare workers. Racial and sexual harassment (both online and offline), with anecdotal reports targeted sexualised attacks against women of East Asian appearance.
  • Abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women workers, including street-based sex workers and migrant domestic workers.
  • Sexual exploitation and violence by state officials and armed guards.

Nonceba Family Counselling Centre

South Africa has gone into lockdown in an attempt to avoid a “catastrophe of huge proportions” said the president. This is a difficult time for everyone, but services such as the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre are facing additional challenges. The Centre support a community where there is high-population density, a high level of overcrowding and poverty that makes it extremely difficult to self-isolate. Women and girls in Khayelitsha are already vulnerable to intimate partner violence, but the fear, tension and stress related to the COVID-19 outbreak will only intensify the risks they face.

In addition to this, most of the women in the shelter are HIV positive and rely on the Nonceba Centre for access to healthcare.  With the additional pressure on healthcare services globally, the Centre is working to ensure the safety of all of the women and children using its services.

Image: Siyanda at The Nonceba Family Counselling Centre

Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis

For women and children experiencing domestic abuse and sexual violence, home is not always a place of safety. Perpetrators will use infection control measures as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour. According to the Joint Statement on COVID-19 from VAWG services across the UK:

“Access to support for women and children may also shrink further due to social isolation and those in poverty will be severely impacted.”

Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis are working to adapt and prepare for the potentially increased pressure on their services and also the restrictions on the services that they are able to offer. As a result of the crisis, they are currently unable to offer face-to-face support in any capacity and will therefore be running increased hours on their helpline. They can now be reached Monday to Friday, 11am to 4pm.

A Living Wage

Public health emergencies can have a tremendous, sustained impact on livelihoods. This can be particularly true for women, who are more likely to be engaged in informal or low-wage activities or migrant work. The global pandemic has caused chaos and suffering for millions of garment workers across the Global South. Many factories in garment-producing countries have closed due to a shortage of raw materials from China and cancelled orders from clothing brands across the world.

“I have talked to some workers and they were saying ‘more than the virus we might die of hunger’ because they don’t have access to food”

The Clean Clothes Campaign is asking brands to ensure that workers who contract the virus are allowed to take sick leave without repercussions and continue to receive wages throughout self-isolation. There have also been reports of garment workers being forced to work in cramped conditions, without protective wear, despite governments introducing social distancing policies across the globe.

Although our Living Wage Project will be able to continue remotely throughout this crisis, the women and girls that it is working to empower will be severely impacted by the short-term decisions being made by brands and retailers, not only for their own personal safety, but for their livelihoods in the long-term.

Image: A Female Garment Worker/Labour Behind the Label

 The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network

For the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network, their preparations to respond to the impact of COVID-19 on both their members and their activities are still speculative at this stage. In the MENA region, there are comparatively few confirmed cases right now, but states have taken early-stage measures to prevent the spread of the virus including social distancing and curfews. However, the Network has over 130 local members in more than 15 countries across the region, so the impact will vary greatly.

The pandemic could result in a number of challenges for the local, female journalists in the Network including limited job opportunities and a greater demand for mental health support during this difficult time, which will be even more difficult to provide remotely.

However, the Network is working hard with donors and partner organisations to ensure that they can respond flexibly to the needs of their members as best as they can and to strengthen the capacity of their remote activities.

To support the Network and the journalists who are at the frontline, reporting stories of global importance from some of the most dangerous places in the world, head to their website.

Educate Girls

It is clear that COVID-19 is continuing to spread throughout India, and at a rapidly accelerating rate. In addition, Maharashtra state is emerging as the epicentre for the pandemic in India.

Educate Girls reached out to us to inform us of the steps they are taking to ensure the safety of both their staff and the communities that they serve. They confirmed that the implications of this lockdown will be severe on the communities they work in, particularly on girls. This is because most of the communities are severely marginalised and zero mobility and loss of income streams will put immense pressure on families.

Not only have they created an internal task force and provided a helpline number to assister their field team members, but they have committed to additional financial support for employees and are working with contacts at the District level Government officials, village-based influencers and parents of out of school children to ensure there is no drop in their communication. Finally, they will continue to deliver trainings whilst all teams are working from home and hope that this will enable them to emerge improved and ready to deliver better.

Irise International

Evidence suggests that during past public health emergencies, resources have been diverted from routine health care services toward containing and responding to the outbreak. These reallocations constrain already limited access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, such as clean and safe deliveries, contraceptives, and pre- and post-natal health care. As a charity that exists to support vulnerable young people and their communities, our project partners Irise are enormously concerned about the impact COVID-19 is having and will continue to have on their community in East Africa. 

“We know that our work is likely to be disrupted, and as one of our funders and partners, I wanted to assure you that we are putting in place a series of mitigation and adaptation plans as we learn more about the impact and scale of this pandemic.

We are worried about our staff. The majority of our team are women and face a disproportionate burden as primary caregivers to their children and wider families.

We are worried about the communities they serve who are struggling to access accurate health information and adequate healthcare.”

The organisation is running an emergency appeal to protect their staff and communities from COVID-19 and its impact. This special fund will be set aside to keep their staff and their families safe and enable them to access healthcare and other support over the coming week. This fund will ensure that every Irise member of staff’s income is secure and that they will get help to access healthcare if they need it, so that they can focus their energy on supporting families and communities during this difficult time.

For more information about our projects, click here.


One Member’s Take on Global Feminism

“I am now proud to call myself a Global Feminist and I would invite others to do the same.”

Previously I hadn’t wanted to call myself a feminist, I felt the word was tainted and outdated, a clichéd stereotype excluding men. However, if you look at the facts it’s obvious that things aren’t right. Women make up two thirds of the world’s illiterate people, 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence, a woman dies in childbirth every two minutes, and so the list continues. I realised how wrong I was and how important it is to fight for change. I also realised how important it was to reverse these preconceived notions of what feminism is and promote a feminism that is inclusive of all.  

After graduation, having always wanted to travel, I went to India. Growing up I sometimes sensed being female put me at a disadvantage and struggled with feelings of frustration and limitation – despite being born in the UK – a country that remains high on global gender equality indexes. Gender inequality is visible throughout the world, but witnessing first-hand the obstacles experienced by women and girls in low-income countries in the Global South, I realised the importance of Global Feminism.  

I found The Circle unintentionally through fundraising for Girls Education in India a few years ago. Since then, I have learnt that feminism equates to respect, equality, and the importance of including people of all genders to achieve this. Joining The Circle has been empowering. I have spent much of my life thinking “I’m just … I’m just a girl, a woman, a mother … where is my voice?” Last March I went to The Circle’s Annual Gathering slightly underprepared and suddenly found myself in a network of inspiring women. From the outside, it is easy to see others as strong, successful and powerful but not see these qualities in yourself; we often hold ourselves back with our own perceived inadequacies. When I stepped inside The Circle, I saw female power and realised my own strength. I left the meeting with the phrase ‘just do it’ ringing in my ears, replacing the ‘I’m just’ and I knew that together we could achieve real change. I am now proud to call myself a Global Feminist and I would invite others to do the same.  

My personal interests focus on girls’ education in India and ethics within the garment industry, particularly The Circle’s Living Wage work. Over twelve years ago I started buying clothes in India to sell in the UK and have been visiting India annually since then. Today I run a business that wholesales our unique clothing range to independent shops across the UK and work closely with tailors to ensure that no one is exploited in the production of our garments and that there is transparency throughout our supply chain. The majority of my clothing is made by the same family I have worked with since I met them in 2005 in rural Rajasthan, Northern India. Together our businesses and families have grown, and a strong friendship has developed. Over the years I have returned to India as a solo woman, with my daughter as a single mother and this year I was blessed to take my own mother.  

Despite sharing food and spending time together in the home it has been hard to form close friendships with the women I meet in India. Within my tailor’s family the women are always introduced as sister, wife or mother and whether it is the language barrier, shyness, or fear of speaking out of turn, it has been hard to go deeper in our relationships. In the family home I meet Laxmi, a sturdy bejewelled older woman, proud mother to her three sons (who manage the family tailoring business), all of whom live with her and her husband in the family home with their wives and children. In the domestic sphere it is clear she is in charge. Her daughters in law are beautiful young women and I sit with them in the home as they chat and giggle in Hindi. They cook the most delicious meals to share with me, presenting me with dish after dish of tasty treats. Between them they have eight children aged 1 – 18 years, all of which grow up in the house together. The women work together to bring up the children and keep the home and when I ask them how they are and what they want in life I am met with a coy smile or neutral expression. Of the eight children the eldest girl is 16 and is due to go to college next year to study engineering. She will be one of the first girls in the family to receive further education, but her father is very clear that as soon as she finishes college she will be married. For the men in the family tradition is very important and although they can see the importance of all the children receiving a good education, they feel strongly their traditional values and family life must be upheld.  

In the market square you will regularly meet strong women; these women have been working on the streets since childhood, selling anklets and henna tattoos to tourists. Always dressed immaculately in traditional Rajasthani costume, these women are always happy to share their stories and regularly invite tourists to their makeshift homes on the edge of the dessert. This is a combination of Indian hospitality and entrepreneurship, these women have generally been married young but often have no financial support from their husbands (stories of domestic abuse and alcoholism are common, as well as the inability to find work due to disability or illness) and the impossibility of finding employment themselves with little or no education and children to bring up leaves them no alternative but to tout on the streets. There is no social security for these women and their voices are not often heard. 

Unfortunately, gender inequality in still deeply ingrained in many aspects of culture in India. Sadly, girls are at a disadvantage from before birth with increasing incidents of gender-based abortion. Domestic violence, sexual harassment, female illiteracy and child marriage are all common problems. In rural India, 70% of girls are married before they reach 18. The country is experiencing a wave of awareness surrounding the prevalence of sexual violence occurring, a woman is raped every twenty minutes.   

Women’s rights in India have reached a crisis point and education, unemployment and gender discrimination are forming a barrier to women’s empowerment. As well as campaigning for political reform, there needs to be a focus on education for girls. In rural areas of Rajasthan, girls are three times more likely to be out of school than other children in India and the female rate of literacy in Rajasthan is the lowest in the country and six in ten girls in Rajasthan marry as children.  

The Circle works with Mumbai based NGO Educate Girls, a charity focused on getting girls into school and providing them with the support needed to stay in school. They use a Creative, Learning and Teaching curriculum to aid girls, particularly if they have fallen behind or have missed periods of school due to having been kept home for domestic work. Support from The Circle has enabled Educate Girls to provide CLT learning kits to 301 schools, improving the education of 7,000 children. As well as previously fundraising for this, this year I visited the Fior Di Loto Foundation, a private girl’s school in the village in which I work. The Foundation was founded in 2003 to provide education for some of the poorest girls living in and around Pushkar. The school provides everything a child needs to attend school, such as transport, uniform, school meals, and books. There are government schools in India but children from the poorest communities are often unable attend due to these constraints. For some families, the school provides extra support with food so that girls are not encouraged to drop out to look after the home or to marry. The foundation has also started a new project to support women during and after childbirth, providing a clean and safe environment. Through the foundation, I sponsor a girl to ensure she receives a full education and I am committed to promoting and fundraising for girls’ education in Rajasthan.  

I live in Somerset and it is my aim to introduce The Circle to my local community. Last year I hosted a fundraising event, talked to people about The Circle’s work and promoted the organisation through social media by sharing the #GlobalFeminsm campaign and provoking articles. This year we will be marking International Women’s Day and continuing to spread the word about Global Feminism. 

This article was written by member of The Circle, Emma Chance. To find out more about becoming a member click here. You can also hear the stories of some of our members on our blog.


The Circle’s Living Wage Symposium

Photo credit: Nader Elgadi

On 8 November, we continued our work to ensure a Living Wage for the millions of women working in the garment industry by convening a symposium to bring together those with the same aim. We were joined at Pinsent Masons by incredible change-makers and enjoyed discussions from the legal, investment, corporate and NGO sectors as well as academics, and policy makers including Jessica Simor QC, ASOS, Continental Clothing, BMO Global Asset management, ASN Bank, Kempen, ACT Coalition, Fair Wear and Clean Clothes Campaign amongst others.

 

We began the day hearing from our keynote speaker, the inspirational Anannya Bhaattacharjee, founder and President of the Garment and Allied workers union in Northern India. Anannya encouraged the room to push forward ‘the theme of solutions’ on the urgent issue of a living wage. She also took the opportunity to remind us of the abuse that happens throughout supply chains that is facilitated by the lack of a living wage and the fact that many consumers are unaware of the true cost of garments. The need for increased transparency was a key theme throughout the day and came up again and again across all of our panels.

“Fashion brands are the drivers of the supply chain” – Anannya Bhaattacharjee

Jessica Simor QC, the legal driving force behind our second report, used her opening speech as an opportunity to remind us that the industry is an uneven playing field. This environment is one that works against brands that want to do better in their supply chains and began the conversation of what structural changes need to be made to allow retailers, investors and individuals to introduce a living wage within their supply chains without losing their competitive edge.

 

Our different panels spoke from positions of experience across many difference fields and with a varied wealth of knowledge. However, many of our speakers spoke about how important legislation that the report outlines will be in achieving the living wage, how transparency for the consumer but also for regulatory boards is vital, and discussed different methodologies on how to implement legislation with ‘teeth’.

“The poorer you are the more vulnerable you are and the more vulnerable you are the more exploited you are …. so a living wage makes a real difference from the ground up” – Adil Rehman

 

Melanie Hall, QC, Ambassador for The Circle, and Livia Firth, Founder of Eco-Age and Ambassador for The Circle closed the day with some incredibly poignant speeches. Livia quoted lecturer and author, Naomi Tyrell, “nothing will ever change unless there is a transnational agreement on wages, otherwise the companies will keep hopping from one country to the other, in pursuit of the cheapest bargain.” This is the argument outlined in our report launched at the event wage changes must be made simultaneously and region-wide to ensure that brands cannot continue to the “race to the bottom” in countries that simply cannot turn down the employment provided by the fashion industry.

 

All those involved in this report understand that there will be obstacles and there will be resistance, but as our Ambassador Melanie Hall closed with:

“Everyone has a part to play, everyone in this room today is a consumer”

A huge thank you to all of our speakers and to JJ Charitable Trust and Pinsent Mason for their support in making this symposium happen.

Download the full report here: Fashion Focus: Towards a Legal Framework For a Living Wage

You can also use the link below:

You can read more about our living wage work, and donate to support this project, at our Living Wage Project hub.


#SecondHandSeptember with The Circle Members and Volunteers

The average lifespan for an item of clothing in the UK is only 2.2 years. UK consumers send 11 million items a week to landfill, that’s over 5.5k tonnes of clothing a week (300k tonnes each year) – truly shocking.

To keep prices low, garment workers are often not paid a living wage… these are people from the poorest communities around the world, and this unfair treatment makes it impossible for them to work their way out of poverty.

Some of our team, members and volunteers have shared their favourite secondhand items to celebrate #SecondHandSeptember!

Georgia (Volunteer)

“I bought this bag from Pop Boutique in Leeds. This store is amazing for unusual vintage finds, especially bags. In this photo I wore it for a day out but I love it for an evening bag due to the strap length, unusual shape and the deep chestnut brown colour making it really stand out. I had been searching for a bag like this for ages and was so excited to come across it.”

Chloe (Volunteer)

Chloe is a social media volunteer for The Music Circle who is currently travelling around the world! “I just bought my new favourite dress for 20 reais (£4) in Río de Janeiro!”

Elsa (Member)

“My mum wore this top throughout the 70s and it’s still in pristine condition. It’s an A-shape cotton top, and from the embroidery work over the chest and bottom pocket area, I expect it’s from India. My Mum was Australian and the country imported many bohemian-style items from India in the 70s. It has a grainy texture which I love and have not found in any other item, ever! This is why, in addition to having family history, this top is special to me.

I am lucky enough to have been brought up with sustainable values. For example, my parents never gifted me plastic toys and favoured items that lasted. The same went for clothes: I wore many good-quality hand-me-downs from my sister.

As a result of my upbringing, I’ve not needed to hugely change my consumption habits – I buy as few clothes as possible, and choose items that are ethical and sustainable, like the Stella McCartney denim skirt in the photo which I will keep wearing forever.
Given how little information was disseminated at the time about fashion’s impact on people and the environment, I consider my parents to be pioneers in how they viewed everything, and everyone, as inter-related.”

Anna (Projects and Communications Officer)

“My mum wore this dress to a wedding before I was born! We were doing a bit of a clear out and she’s passed it on to me. I’m trying to increasingly buy secondhand, especially when there are so many great charity shops and vintage markets in London.”

Edie (Volunteer)

“I had a huge vintage clothing haul last time I was in Manchester and found loads of great dresses, shirts and even a pair of jeans. I love this dress and wore it when I went on holiday to Paris.”

Shop secondhand! Why not challenge yourself not to buy any new clothes for the month of September? Alternatively, support the ’30 Wears Campaign’ started by our Ambassador Livia Firth by challenging yourself to ask the question “will I wear this 30 times?” before making a new purchase. The 30 Wears Challenge is a great way to contribute to a more sustainable fashion world. You don’t need to give up buying the clothes you love or spend your days researching how ethical a company is

Read more about our Living Wage work, which sets out the legal argument that a living wage is a fundamental human right, and that companies and governments have a responsibility to uphold this right, by clicking here.

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism


Interview with our Living Wage Project Manager

 

Earlier this year, Sharon McClenaghan joined The Circle as the project manager for our Living Wage work. For September, we are focusing on the progress we’ve made with this project and wanted to give our readers this chance to hear from Sharon herself. We sat down and asked her a few questions.

Welcome! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hi Anna, thank you for the welcome. I joined the Circle in April 2019 as the part-time project manager of the Living Wage project. I have a background in labour rights having worked at Christian Aid for over 10 years as private Sector advisor and in that capacity as a director on the board of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) for 2.5 years. During that time I helped lead the work on improving conditions for workers in supply chains in South Africa in the fruit sector, working with high street supermarkets such as Sainsburys Waitrose and Co-op. Before that I worked on a DFID project focused on developing supermarket codes of conduct sensitive to the conditions of women workers and before that again I worked on a PhD looking at the conditions of women workers in ‘maquiladoras’ (or sweatshops) in the Dominican Republic. I also work in a team of consultants evaluating UN projects.

What have you been working on since starting at The Circle?

Since April, we have been busy working on the next stage of the Living Wage
project and building on the very strong report which The Circle produced in 2017 with the aim of producing a second report later in the year. The first report clearly establishes the living wage as a fundamental right, making the argument that production can move to other countries where wages are cheaper. In order to counter this, the second report will provide the basis of a new legal directive that will oblige garments/fashion companies to pay a living wage throughout the supply chain in all jurisdictions. New research was commissioned by the Lawyer`s Circle Steering group in April and May and this was developed into a proposal (which will form the basis of the report). In June we held a Roundtable with invited guests, the majority of whom were lawyers from academia and companies, at Matrix Chambers to discuss this and to help us think through the next stages of a legal framework on living wages and and what support we need to develop to enable this to happen.


What can we expect from the Living Wage project over the coming months?

We have a lot planned for the next few months. We are currently writing the second living wage report, due to be completed in September. In October I will attend the PLWF conference (a Dutch based initiative representing the investor sector in Holland) which encourages and monitors investee companies to address the non-payment of living wage in their global supply chains. We have worked with PLWF before to support their work and plan to strengthen this partnership. In November Jessica Simor and Livia Firth, members of the Steering group of the Living wage project will speak at the Trust conference London 2019, a global human rights forum in which they will `soft launch` the report. Towards the end of the year we are planning a Living Wage Symposium which will bring together all those working on the Living wage as well as those working on the wider issue of mandatory human rights due diligence as it relates to companies. The focus of the symposium will be to discuss the legal framework for a living wage as proposed in the report and the different work and initiatives related to this. The symposium will be ‘solutions orientated’ in focus.

What have you found most surprising about the conditions of women working
in the factory industry?

Probably most surprising and depressing s the fact that conditions remain so poor for so many women working in supply chains after so long. Initially, 20 years ago, there was a lot of hope that company codes of conduct would improve conditions but time has shown that this is just not the case. If anything the lack of a legal imperative to change has meant that for many companies, corporate social responsibility, CSR, is a rue and its `business as usual` despite promoting commitments to change.

Are you hopeful about the future of the industry?

I am cautiously hopeful (as is my nature!) about the future of the industry. I see the growing phenomena of `fast fashion` and its dependence upon cheap labour as alarming especially examples where clothes are produced here in the UK for a few pounds. However, at the same time I see a growing trend in the UK and other European countries to call companies to account for their human rights and to push for a legal solution to ensure that they take responsibility for workers`s rights. In that context I think the Circle`s legal work on the living wage is critical- while there are those working on mandatory `human rights due diligence` as it relates to companies and their supply chains, only the Circle is working on that as it relates to Living wage.

What can we do, as consumers, to support women across the globe working in the garment industry?

As consumers the most important thing is be thoughtful and questioning as to the conditions in which clothes are made. Ask questions of brands as to the conditions under which garments are produced. What is their policy on labour standards and in particular on the Living Wage? Do they have full disclosure of their supply chains and are they transparent about this? How do they investigate allegations of abuse? Ask these questions of all brands. I think its very hard to know currently which brands are `good` and which are `bad` especially since there is still no way to ensure that clothing has been produced in an ethical way with living wages paid to workers. By asking questions and demanding answers of brands we can help push them further along that road and when there is a campaign for binding legislation.

Finally, what does ‘Women Empowering Women’ mean to you?

I love the idea of women empowering women and it was that which first attracted me to The Circle. I have always been very proud to call myself a feminist and one with a lovely husband and two lovely boys so there isn’t anything remotely anti-male about the idea to me, despite it being threatening to some men. However, yes, the focus is on women making changes happen for themselves and for other women in a non hierarchical way and in a way where there is no competition or threat just the desire to improve the conditions of all women, which benefits everyone, men and women.

To support our Living Wage work click here. Sharon McClenaghan will be hosting The Circle Connects: Living Wage on 24 September for our members to find out more about the project – register here.


Widen Your Circle: with The Circle member Laura

“No matter what your contribution, being a member of The Circle guarantees that you will be supported and spurred on by an incredible group of likeminded women.”

This month, as part of Widen Your Circle, we have spoken to a number of our members about their involvement with The Circle and what it means to be a member!

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m 35, female, a Partner at Stewarts (a litigation law firm) and, my side hustle (if non-millennials are allowed them!), a Director at Richmond Rugby Club where I used to play.

Why did you become a member of The Circle?

I joined The Circle after attending the launch of Fashion Focus: The Fundamental Right to a Living Wage, which was researched and prepared by members of The Lawyers Circle. It was an incredibly inspiring experience listening to a group of very senior female lawyers explain how they have used their skills, profile, connections and, what can only be very limited, free time to make a real difference to the lives of women globally. I decided there and then that I would join. The Circle facilitates the creation of a network of people that will use their skills and connections for a specific goal, the improvement of the lives of women everywhere. I call it the female equivalent of the “Old Boys Network”: the main differentiating factor being that the network is used for universal rather than individual betterment!

Since becoming a member I have contributed to the Tanzanian Maternal Health Rights project being led by members of The Lawyers Circle, have assisted with creating a skills database to better resource The Lawyers Circle projects, have become part of The London Circle committee, have arranged for my firm to host a number of events and in September I am taking part in The Great River Race in a Dragon boat together with 16 other members to raise funds for Nonceba Family Counselling Centre in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. I’ve also broadened the network. In particular, a friend’s company, Le Bus Vert in Biarritz France, is currently supporting the Dragon Boat fundraising efforts by contributing a proportion of its sales of jewellery and other items made from reclaimed materials (often those washed up on local beaches) to the cause. All because I turned up to an event at a barristers chambers on a week night!

There are so many ways of getting involved in raising funds, contributing to projects or just simply spreading the word. No matter what your contribution, being a member of The Circle guarantees that you will be supported and spurred on by an incredible group of likeminded women.

What does Global Feminism mean to you?

In my mind Global Feminism means recognising that whilst there remain many barriers and disadvantages suffered by women in the UK, I, and others, do have a voice. Having achieved that platform we should use it to advocate for those that are in a situation far worse than our own. In doing so and by taking small steps in improving the rights and opportunities available to women globally, we can make huge strides forward for society as a whole.

Are there any of The Circle’s projects that are particularly close to your heart and can you tell us a bit more about these and why they stand out?

The Fashion Focus: The Fundamental Right to a Living Wage Report really opened my eyes to the staggering inequalities and consequences of our current approach to clothing production and consumption. It not only highlighted the issues but identified the ways in which different jurisdictions, including our own, need to cooperate and legislate to ensure global change. This element of The Circle’s work stands out to me not only as an example of how the law can be used and how a group of lawyers can work together but it has affected my own attitudes as a consumer. The more the issue can be highlighted, and it is certainly being picked up by global media, the more people will start to question the impact of their choices. Consequently, the more pressure there will on governments to legislate to effect change and on fashion companies to be open about their approach. This is an area where I really believe it will be possible to see a visible improvement, hopefully in fairly short order!

Click here to become a member of The Circle and Widen Your Circle.

#WidenYourCircle #WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism


Annie Lennox for The Times

Rarely does a moment occur when, as an activist, I sense that seismic change might be in the air. This week will be one of those moments. I’m writing to say that we must seize it.

“I have spent years campaigning on social justice issues concerning the rights of women and girls. I feel driven by the conviction that it is essential to try, with the hope that with collective effort, things can be improved — while motivated by a combination of outrage and empathy .

But rarely does a moment occur when, as an activist, I sense that seismic change might be in the air. This week will be one of those moments. I’m writing to say that we must seize it.”

Annie Lennox calls on governments to take action against sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. You can read the full article here: Annies Lennox Times article 20 June

#GlobalFeminism #WomenEmpoweringWomen


Who Made Your Clothes?

 

Over the last few years the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethical’ in relation to the fashion industry, have been taking the headlines by storm. On 24th April 2013, it was reported that a factory had collapsed in Bangladesh, leading to the deaths of more than 1,000 workers. Bangladesh is one of the largest garment producers in the world. When we shop on the high street there are no signposts signalling that slavery may be prevalent within their supply chains. We see these amazing garments and are excited to try them on and shop the latest trends but, we do not see the faces of the women who make these garments.

As a person who is highly interested in the craftmanship of clothes and the reinvention of trends, I am conflicted by how I can invest in this industry without contributing to the continuing unethical practices of the fashion industry. We need to make changes in how we make, source, and produce the clothes. Government bodies and retailers need to be made accountable: Eco-age is doing just that.

In an interview for the sustainability consultancy Eco-age, our very own Livia Firth who co-founded The Circle, describes the first time she visited a factory in Bangladesh. In 2013 Firth travelled with Oxfam and says it “changed my entire life”. They were “smuggled” into a factory where there were “armed guards at the doors so no one could come in and out”, “armed bars at the windows, no fire escape […] the floor was full of women who had to produce 100 pieces an hour and these women had no rights” such as no sick leave and only two toilet breaks a day. Even if their child was sick, not working would result in a loss of their jobs. As Livia Firth goes on to say, we are so far-removed from this horrific situation that it is hard to believe that the clothes we wear everyday are linked to this inhumane treatment.

Bangladesh is “such a vibrant, beautiful country, and the women deserve so much more” – Livia Firth

 

I love what Livia Firth also says in this EcoAgeTV video which you can watch on YouTube (see link above). The responsibility lies in all of us, not just the retailers and government bodies who have an immense responsibility to make changes.

The day after the crack was discovered in the factory, the garment workers did not want to go inside but they were threatened. The factory was under pressure to fulfil the orders. Nazma Aktar, Founder and Executive Director of the Awaj Foundation says, “the previous night, everybody knew the factory was not safe. The politicians and the manufacturers forced the workers to enter. It is murder.”

The garment industry is a complicated web of problems that are hard to solve. Aktar goes on to say that out of 4 million workers in the garment industry, 80% are women coming from very poor families who live in the countryside and entering into the urban economy. These jobs are very important for them. If their salaries go up, the factory will close down.

“The multi-nationals always said, if you price more we will leave this country, we will leave this business from Bangladesh.” – Nazma Aktay

 

 

On 11th May 2017 The Circle launched The Living Wage report in partnership with TrustLaw and the Clean Clothes Campaign at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. It is the first report to demand the Living Wage for garment workers.

The report sets out the legal argument that a living wage is a fundamental human right, and that companies and governments have a responsibility to uphold this right.

The report starts by clearly stating how efforts to prevent labour exploitation have been non-binding. They have been ‘voluntary codes and initiatives designed, implemented and monitored by the retail companies that control the supply chain, and normally developed in response to negative publicity generated by investigations carried out by NGOs or the media.’ This behaviour is corrupt. It is utterly inhumane that retailers are not upholding their responsibility to protect their workers. This is where the work that The Circle are doing is fundamental to making progress in the debate about the living wage. The Circle are combining activism and research within a legal framework. This report could really shake up the debate.

Ultimately though, as Firth reminds us, we all have a responsibility to change the face of fashion. We live in a throw-away society and when we discard a garment after only a couple of wears, we are not taking a moment to remember who made it. When we buy and buy and buy, we are giving these companies the means to produce more, faster; “we are completely complicit in the system”. But when we do not buy into this industry, we are taking away work from these women.

We “cannot boycott or stop buying because they need to work”

 So, we need to be actively seeking ways to go to the source of the problem, expose the corruption and improve the lives of these women who deserve so much more.

Firth tells Harper’s Bazaar Netherland of some useful tips for how we can shop differently and not treat these women like slave labour. We need to show them that “we really respect their work and we value the things that they make. So, when they sweat on their production line, producing 150 pieces an hour, make them know that we value them, that we are not going to wear them once or twice and then throw them away”

I would highly recommend reading the report (it’s a long one so grab a cup a tea and a couple of biscuits) and get ready to be thoroughly inspired.

Be part of the change. This is just the beginning.

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism

This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is an intern for The Circle. Georgia is a recent English graduate and is passionate about women’s rights and the underlying issues in the fast-fashion industry.

 


The Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka

Our member Dushy has co-written a blog post about Ashila Dandeniya, an inspiring woman working for the rights of garment sector employees, and The Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka.

Founder’s story

Ashila Dandeniya’s was first exposed to Katunayake Industrial Zone soon after finishing school. Her first job was as a Quality Checker for a top garment factory. Ashila’s position was unfairly terminated as a result of a conflict, however, with the support of Right 2 Life Human Rights Centre, she represented herself at the Labour Tribunal at the age of 22 and was offered a settlement amount of 1 year’s salary. This was the beginning of her activist journey to fight for the rights of garment workers in Sri Lanka.

Although she returned to work in another garment factory, before long she left to become a part of ALARM, a subsidiary of Oxfam which worked on projects involving labour rights. She worked as a programme coordinator for 5 years on projects concerning living wage, living condition, and freedom of association. By the end of ALARM assignment, Ashila had experience, expertise, and support among fellow workers in the garment industry. So, with just 12 members, Ashila initiated The Standup Movement to continue the work she’s passionate about.

The Stand Up Movement

The purpose of SUM is to educate the workers in the importance of taking initiative and taking on leadership roles in the factories, to be involved in their worker’s rights and to provide a safe space for the workers to discuss their problems.
In the beginning, SUM focused mainly on creating a dialogue with garment sector workers to understand their concerns and expectations. It emerged out of discussions that workers desired to watch films, an activity banned in most boarding houses due to the electricity usage, as an opportunity to engage with one another. SUM began organizing film screenings which gave SUM the chance to build relationships with workers, gain an insight into their lives and further understand the challenges that they faced.

SUM continued to grow and increase its membership by continuing to hold events for the garment sector workers including a cross-factory cricket tournament between 32 teams that went on for 3 months. It was entirely funded by the workers and resulted in SUM welcoming 250 new members. For a small fee, membership entails donations for the funerals of two family members and access to emergency loans.

Man Sandhi

In 2009, SUM, with the support of Rights Now published ‘Man Sandhi’, a book that included 15 case studies (out of 78 case studies conducted) on how the withdrawal of GSP Plus impacted workers with salary cuts, meal reductions, and the limitation of other essential facilities and provisions factories.
SUM launched the book in the presence of factory owners, international media, NGOs, and workers from various factories to great success. The entire event was organized by the members of SUM and the book written by Ashila herself. As the first publication that discussed the issues from the perspective of the workers, this was a huge step for those in the sector. The acclaim that Ashila received from this publication also continues to raise awareness.

The vision

The vision of SUM is to build a new concept trade union that deviate from traditional methods; a trade union that truly stands for the social security of workers.
SUM believes that traditional trade union methods are presently ineffective, from language and colours they use to strategies they employ to communicate to workers. SUM aims to take a fresh approach in order to achieve a higher participation and is proud of its members who have gone on to take leadership in the field of workers’ rights in their respective factories.

Some of the main challenges that workers face as identified by SUM

– Minimum wage not covering the living wage and the factories justifying this with overtime and incentives.
– Sexual harrassment
– ‘Hidden Cost’— workers doing overtime and not having time for social participation resulting in poor social dignity.
– Working without drinking water, not going to the toilet, and not taking full breaks so that they can achieve targets and make more money.
– Poor diet and as a result suffering from nutritional deficiencies such as Anemia.
– Language and communication problems faced by workers recruited from North and East parts of the island.
– Poor condition of the boarding houses without proper facilities.
– Break-ins at boarding houses.
– Being cheated by vendors.
– Workers consider this as a short term job and therefore less commitment to stand up for rights and make a change.
– Society’s negative attitude towards the factory workers and a general lack of respect from the community.

These issues are incredible damaging to garment sector workers.

Recently, a 23 year-old Tamil speaking female worker committed suicide inside a boarding house on 17th of September after just 3 months of working at the zone. No motive has been identified although the matter has been already closed and declared unsuspicious.

SUM believes that it is important to understand how safe the zone is for these workers who leave their families behind to come and survive on their own. Furthermore, it is vital to understand the necessity of providing a solid support system to the workers to overcome both personal as well as work-related challenges.

Ashila will be speaking at a screening of Made in Sri Lanka happening on 4th January in Colombo, at which she will be discussing SUM’s progress and current projects. Get in contact to find out more details of the event!

This article was written by member of The Circle, Dushy Rabinath and Shyama Basnayaka. Dushy lives and works in Colombo and is passionate about the rights of women.

Photo credit: Dushy and her family in Sri Lanka

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist


The Circle Member Julie Ngov on sustainable fashion and the living wage

#WidenYourCircle: with The Circle member Julie Ngov

The Circle member Julie Ngov shares her story of choosing her own sustainable fashion brand over a career in law, why she is a member of The Circle and the importance of the living wage in the fashion industry.

Hi, Julie. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you decided to leave your career in law to start an ethical luxury brand?

I grew up in Adelaide, Australia. My family are ethnically Chinese and my parents grew up in Cambodia. Traditionally my family were small business owners and my grandfather ran a fabric mill in Cambodia alongside other businesses. My parents moved to Australia in the early 80s as refugees. I was drawn to being a lawyer because I loved reading, reasoning and politics. In 2010 I had the opportunity to move to London to start a career in the City.

The long hours and pressure in the City took their toll. I discovered that I was no longer seeing friends, was gradually losing touch with my family and myself. I eventually burned out after 5 years in the City. The stressful, fast pace of life in London often means that the environment is an afterthought. In particular, the dominating presence of fast fashion brands and cheap, disposable clothing was a real eye opener.

After suffering chronic neck and back pain from long hours working as a lawyer, I took up yoga and weight training to build strength and manage the pain. This led to a range of sportswear purchases, but none of the garments really fit me and no brand spoke about having any environmental or ethical standards. With Cambodia being a major hub for garment manufacturing, the exploitative nature of the industry and how it impacts women particularly are issues that are close to my heart. Adrenna is an effort to bring together my love for movement, a healthy body and mindset and respect for the environment and humanity.

Why did you decide to become a member of The Circle?

I joined The Circle because of its clear focus on women and the defined projects that it funds.

“Fashion’s main problem is the amount of clothes that we produce, which has the effect of devaluing not only the product, but the people who make them”

Why is the Living Wage Project important to you?

The Living Wage project is important to me because of my Cambodian heritage, so it speaks to me directly on a personal level as well as a professional level.

It’s also important because it brings to light the continuous need to improve the working conditions within the fashion industry. It brings together the human and labour rights elements that I care about as a lawyer and founder of a fashion brand. We should not just be fighting for a minimum wage that simply allows people to survive, but a living wage. Fashion is a visibly exploitative industry and over 80% of workers in the industry are female, so this also becomes a gender issue. Fast fashion brands are selling leggings for £5, which must cover the cost of the materials, thread, shipping and labour costs. This means the sheer quantity they have to produce is huge in order to turn a profit, regardless of whether the consumer needs it or not, and putting pressure on workers to labour in long hours at repetitive work. The loser in the end is the environment and the worker. Adrenna’s production model addresses all of those aspects of the traditional fashion supply chain —we make in small quantities, to the highest quality, using facilities in London and Europe that we personally visit and inspect. Our UK-based workers are paid the UK living wage.

Can you tell us how the issues that you are passionate about have informed your choices as a business owner?

I really believe that environmental challenges will be the defining issue of our generation and they won’t discriminate by age, race, class or wealth. Any business owner operating today has a responsibility to ensure their practices are as sustainable as possible. No new fashion brand —or any other type of business— should be launched today without a sustainability mission. Unfortunately we don’t live in a sustainable, zero-waste world, but a consumer one, so change is going to be incremental and no one can ever profess to be perfect (yet). Fashion’s main problem is the amount of clothes that we produce, which has the effect of devaluing not only the product, but the people who make them. If we produce less it will be better for all. Adrenna is pioneering a made-to-order model to reduce the amount of production; however, it has not been easy as it requires a change of mindset for suppliers and manufacturers who are used to working in the normal way. In our coming collections, I’m working hard to continuously push our sustainability credentials through the introduction of new, innovative materials and processes.

As consumers of fashion, what can we do to reduce our environmental and social impact and what do you think our expectations of the fashion industry should be?

In the day and age of data driven commerce, consumer spending habits are meticulously watched and monitored. Consumers actually have a lot of power when it comes to influencing brands to build better businesses. Our expectations of the fashion industry should be as high as possible. If brands are asking us to part with our money for an aspirational ideal, we should also be aspirational in the way we engage with them.

Every time I am thinking of making that impulse buy, I go through this thinking process:

– Do I already have something similar?
– Do I need it or do I want it? Can I wait a few days before I decide whether to buy it?
– Is there a sustainable and ethical alternative? (Even if it costs a little more, it would be worth it if the quality is significantly better and it ensures that the creator is paid a living wage).
– Will I wear it more than 30 times and will I keep it for at least 5 seasons?

To find out more about The Circle membership and how you can become a member, please click here.

 

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonImAGlobalFeminist