Women’s Human Rights at Work

On 27 June, the Human Rights Council held its annual discussion on the human rights of women, with a focus on violence against women in the world of work

By Federica Bertacchini – As established in its resolution 6/30 adopted in 2007[1], the Human Rights Council (HCR) is strongly committed to gender equality and the necessity to fully implement the human rights of women. To this end, a full-day discussion is once a year dedicated to this issue during the Council’s summer session in Geneva. This time, the first part of this annual discussion started with a panel on violence against women in the world of work. In addition, a number of side events addressed this topic throughout the whole duration of the 41st session of the HCR (24 June-12 July). A delegation of Dianova International was present throughout the whole session.

Federica Bertacchini and Lucía GobernaSexual harassment of women is still a pressing problem worldwide. For example, according to a survey[2] conducted in the European Union, between 45 and 55% of women report having experienced sexual harassment since age 15. Sexual harassment appears to be more commonly experienced by women with a university degree and those in the highest occupational groups: respectively 74% and 75% of women in a professional capacity or in top management jobs report having experienced sexual harassment, compared to 44% of female skilled manual workers and 41% of women who state that they have never been formally employed[3].

Integrating Women’s Human Rights within the Business Agenda

Violence and sexual harassment in the world of work are serious violations of women’s human rights and half of the two-hour long panel discussion was dedicated to interventions on these issues by representatives of member states, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations. Following the keynote statements by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland, the moderator’s introduction and the panellists’ presentations highlighted the latest advancement in the discussion and made suggestions for further actions.

“Patriarchal power structures, social norms and gender stereotypes must be challenged”

Firstly, Surya Deva, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (also referred to as Working Group on Business and Human Rights), who moderated the panel, emphasized the importance of challenging patriarchal power structures, social norms and gender stereotypes by spreading gender-sensitive training to managerial staff in all sectors and having more women represented in senior and decision-making positions, not only in corporations but also in trade unions. To make this shift possible, gender experts, women organizations and women rights defenders must be part of the conversation, and sex-disaggregated data collected and used by business.

It should be mentioned that the issues raised by Deva reflected the findings of the working group’s latest report, released the previous day: “Gender Dimensions of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights[4].  The report develops a gender framework for the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights developed by the United Nations, and proposes a gender guidance specific to each of these 31 guiding principles. In this sense, the report emphasizes the importance of not only implementing formal gender equality measures (mostly already applied by the business sector), but also on achieving substantive gender equality, where equality in law, opportunities and treatment of women and men is duly reflected in the impact, outcomes and results of each action undertaken.

“More than 250 million women still lack adequate protection at work”

Delegations and panellists also welcomed the landmark adoption of the new International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work and accompanying recommendation[5], adopted on 21 June, final day of the Centenary International Labour Conference, in Geneva. This convention is a step farther in the objective of making decent work available to all, an ambition which is further away from being realized for women than for men, since more than 250 million women still lack adequate protection at work.

Maria Luz Vega, Coordinator of the Future of Work Initiative at ILO, commended the Convention as reflecting awareness on practices and behaviours that damage individuals, their working environment, productivity and business reputation. Moreover, the Convention restates the need for respect as a basic condition to ensure dignity of men and women and, consequently, social justice for both at work. Being the first-ever global treaty on the topic, following years of campaigning by trade unions, civil societies and women’s organizations, the Convention is of particular significance for its legally binding value. Together with its related Recommendation document, it is the strongest instrument available to ensure legal accountability and provide guidance on how legal commitments can be implemented at state level. The convention will enter into force one year after at least two member States ratify it, however, its issuance will impact all member States, since national authorities are required to review the document, thus bringing visibility to the issue at national and international level.

“Women are still disproportionately impacted by gender-based violence, among which sexual harassment and assault in the workplace”

Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, commented on her role in this mandate, which is marking its 25th anniversary this year. Since 1994, special rapporteurs have been addressing violence in all its forms, with particular focus on States’ obligations to adhere to standards of due diligence when addressing the issue of violence against women. However, she recalled that, despite all efforts, the problem persists in all societies and women are still disproportionally impacted by gender-based violence, among which sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. As stressed by Šimonović, the new ILO Convention is an addition to the existing framework[6] providing minimum standards in the world of work. If ratified and applied, it will certainly contribute to eliminate this problem.

Before the assembly discussion, Novelita Palisoc, Regional Representative for Asia in the International Domestic Workers Federation and President of the United Domestic Workers of the Philippines, brought to the audience her twenty-year personal and professional experience as a domestic worker in the Philippines and in Qatar where she had been treated poorly. She said that after joining the union, training and seminars have educated and empowered her and that she was now a member of the International Domestic Workers Federation Executive Committee.

The subsequent comments from the floor, as well as the closing remarks, emphasized the good practices implemented in the sector and investigated alternative ways to raise awareness. The necessity of engaging men in the process and the role of employers in prevention was also highlighted. In their concluding remarks, Dubravka Šimonović and Novelita Palisoc stressed the need of a system-wide approach to eliminating violence against women, and urged the states to ratify the new ILO convention and integrate it into their legal systems. Palisoc also insisted on the importance of responding more effectively to complaints, since in many instances, perpetrators are not held accountable for their abuses.

Integrating a Gender Perspective in the UN Guiding Principles

The discussion on Violence against women in the world of work linked perfectly with the side event co-organized by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. The event, entitled Integrating a gender perspective in implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: from guidance to implementation, took place on the same day. During the session, six representatives from states, businesses and civil society shared their views on and responses to the Working Group’s Gender Framework and Guidance document, focusing on the opportunities the document presents for developing measures to mainstream the human rights of women and girls, and to bring a gender perspective into the UN Guiding Principles and their practical application in the world of work.

Download pdf documentThe main questions raised during the event spanned from the role of states in ensuring greater attention to women and girls in the development and implementation of their National Action Plans on Business and Human rights, to unveiling the key challenges businesses encounter in integrating a gender-responsive approach to human rights due diligence. It was also asked what steps should be taken by states, the business world, civil society and other actors to address the barriers women and girls face when accessing remedies in cases of violation of their rights.

Maryann Njau-Kimani, Senior Deputy Solicitor General, Secretary of Justice and Constitutional Affairs of the Government of Kenya, and Lina Holguin, Senior Policy Analyst at the Global Issues and Development Branch of the Government of Canada presented the integration of a gender perspective into their National Action Plan and governmental institutions. Then, Marianna Leite, Global Lead on Gender and Inequality at Christian Aid and Cynthia Trigo, Human Rights Senior Advisor at Total S.A. commented on the topic from the perspective of the NGOs and business sector, respectively.

Lastly, Joanna Bourke-Martignoni, Senior Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy, and Ms. Adrienne Cruz, Senior Gender Specialist at ILO, provided their expertise from academia and the UN.


Both the panel discussion and side events treated themes that are dear to Dianova International as evidenced by the advocacy and sensitization efforts the organization has been making in recent years to help bringing violence and harassment against women to an end[7]. More recently, with the launch of its global campaign on Human Empowerment, Dianova International and the Dianova Network are putting the spotlight on the specificity of gender-determined needs in the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders.

The world of work is an essential realm of society, contributing to each and every human being’s personal growth. As such, Dianova believes that it must be free from any form of violence, whether directed at women or at men, for the benefit of both genders, the business sector, the economy and our society as a whole. That is why, the Gender Guidance provided by the UN Working Group and the newly adopted ILO Convention must be used by all actors in society as tools to put women’s rights at the centre of business and human rights frameworks and practice. These complementary instruments provide a unique opportunity to achieve substantive gender equality in the world of work.

Webcast of the Discussion Panel



[1] OHCHR, 2007. Resolution 6/30 on “Integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system”. (Geneva). http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/E/HRC/resolutions/A_HRC_RES_6_30.pdf

[2] Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), 2014. Violence against women: an EU-wide survey, main results. (Vienna).


[3] According to survey, this finding could result from various reasons, such as professional women being more alert to what constitutes sexual harassment, and their exposure to situations with higher risks of abuse.

[4] UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, 2019. Gender dimensions of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Geneva) https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G19/146/08/PDF/G1914608.pdf?OpenElement

[5] News article by ILO with links to the Convention and Recommendation: https://www.ilo.org/ilc/ILCSessions/108/media-centre/news/WCMS_711321/lang–en/index.htm

[6] The Framework includes (and is not limited to) the following documents: The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, the Protocol to the African Charter to Human Rights, and the Beijing Platform for Action.

[7] In particular, in 2018 Dianova International joined the “We Empower Team” led by UN Women and ILO in a webinar  to discuss  the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and present Dianova International´s toolkit on Sexual Harassment at work (download toolkit)

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