Corporate Eye

CSR, Women and Violence

Today I had thought to report on some ideas for constructing a sustainable economy.  Some other time.

Instead the ever readable Akhila Vijayaraghavan, founder of international CSR consultancy The Green Den, has written a potent blog about the treatment of women in her native Indian society.

In particular she points to the recent deaths of two baby girls named Neha Afreen and Falak, who have died through severe battering within the last 6 weeks.

Here is a bit more detail of the cases: those of a sensitive disposition should look away now.

Afreen, Falak and rape: three brief, painful facts

Neha Afreen died on 11th April in Bangalore after a three day struggle in hospital.  She had severe head and eye injuries and burn and human bite marks all over her body.  Her father is alleged to have tried to murder her because he wanted to have a son, not a daughter.

Falak died on 15th March in Delhi after a three month struggle in hospital.  She had severe head injuries, fractured limbs and bite marks.  The teenager who claimed to be the mother (but has since been discovered not to be) is thought to have battered the baby as a result of abuse by her own father and being raped and forced into prostitution by her “boyfriend”.

A recent investigation into the police force of New Delhi has revealed over half of them have an extraordinarily relaxed attitudes towards rape.  Senior policemen are quoted as saying “(her clothes mean) she wants them to do something to her”, “the ones who complain have turned rape into a business”, “no rape happens without the girl’s provocation”, “girls drink .. people take advantage”.

Moving CSR forwards

Businesses’ CSR strategies now embrace a whole gamut of social engagement, from fair trade through to AIDS alleviation programmes and alcohol education.  However none seem to want to tackle the issues of violence and women’s rights in the societies within which they operate.  Why?

This is a difficult question to answer.  It’s less than 100 years since women were allowed equity with men in UK law when seeking divorce and only 22 years since Judge Dean told the jury in a rape trial “when a woman says ‘No’ she doesn’t always mean ‘No’ “.  Two years ago 50% of women surveyed said they thought rape victims were to blame and many teenage boys believe if a girl comes round to their house they want to have sex.

In other words western society still has its own terrible problems with misogyny to deal with, as the continuing struggle to equalise pay and professional opportunity across the genders attests.

However, I think its not just a case of not wanting to throw stones in glass houses.  It’s more a question of what’s easy (or efficient, or cheap), and tackling deep rooted social problems isn’t easy (or efficient, or cheap!)

This is a nettle CSR — socially responsible corporations — have to grasp.  It is not enough to hug a tree, offset carbon emissions and get worried about the working conditions of your suppliers in poorer countries.  Businesses have to get real and understand that they have a tremendous opportunity to tackle deep rooted social injustices like those described here.

For example, in a bid to boost its economy the Indian government has recently announced plans to allow 100% foreign direct investment in the retail sector.  This means stores and businesses acquired in the country by foreign retailers can be 100%-owned with profits able to flow offshore in their entirety.  Big names showing interest in the proposals include LVMH, Wal Mart and Ikea.

It’s a huge carrot to get retailers to bring their business to India.  But does a socially responsible business really want to take that carrot in a country where the capital’s police have such a lax attitude towards rape and where over 50% of women see violence as an everyday part of their marriage?

… but don’t preach

You would be hard pushed to find any business executive or board member who was personally ambivalent to the suffering of women, both married adults and babies, in India.  It may not be an issue directly related to the business’ bottom line but in these brave new days of responsibility and sustainability we understand companies have a more holistic relationship with their social environment … don’t we?

However, I’ve always argued that “ethical business” can easily turn into a vehicle for the export of morality and culture from one country to another.  If a business has a problem with conditions in a country it should say so, loud and proud. Be principled, but don’t preach; point out your problems but allow that country to find and adopt its own solutions.

For example, what looks like an overwhelming majority of Indian netizens called for a mandatory death penalty for child abusers after the death of Neha Afreen.  What sort of support would that get among executives and board members?  Is the solution really their domain anyway or should it be left to the country and culture to decide?

Businesses are used to lobbying governments and the larger the company the more international their efforts.  There is no reason that such lobbying cannot be in the realm of CSR and sustainability as well as pure business conditions.  If CSR really has become embedded in business practice then this should be happening every day.  The fact that it is not, and that major brands investing in India appear not to care about the plight of women in their new market, just shows how far we have to go to create a business sector which is sustainable and responsible.

Picture Credit: Laughing at Dean by Don LaVange under CC Attribution Share Alike License.

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A former CTO, Chris has a broad and varied background. He’s been involved with blue chips, consultancies & SMEs across a wide variety of sectors and has worked in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. In 2007 he decided to combine his knowledge of business and IT with his passion for all things sustainable and has been busy writing ever since. However, his greatest ambition remains to brew the perfect cup of coffee.

Sad, Potent, True. You have given these awful cases a whole new dimension Chris. “It is not enough to hug a tree, offset carbon emissions and get worried about the working conditions of your suppliers in poorer countries” . I could not have put it better myself. Companies both local and international can and should use their power to try and change issues which may not be the IN thing but can have a disastrous affect if left untouched!

Thank you very much for your comment Bushra!

It’s sometimes difficult to remember it’s *only* 15 years since John Elkington started to turn the tide on sustainability reporting .. in that short time we’ve reached the point where sustainability and responsibility are concepts 99% of businesses want to ally themselves with.

However, the pace of real change is slow and many businesses still insist on only being sustainable or responsible where it profits them.

Companies cannot have it both ways: they cannot pursue just the profit motive and then complain that regulation to spread the benefits of profit equitably across society are too heavy. This is the real challenge facing companies in this latest iteration of responsible business.

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