The Global Fund is pulling out of a controversial partnership with Heineken but not for the reason most cited by critics.
Public health advocates had been blasting Peter Sands, the new executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, for backing a partnership with Heineken to “fight infectious diseases in Africa.” Some activists said it was inappropriate for a health agency to align with a product that can be detrimental to people’s health.
The Global Fund shrugged off that criticism for weeks. The plan was for Heineken to use its extensive logistics and communications expertise to help the Fund deliver medical supplies.
Now the Fund says it’s suspending the deal not out of concern for the people who drink too much Heineken but out of concern for women who promote the beer.
In a short statement the Global Fund says Heineken is being cut off because of “the company’s use of female beer promoters in ways that expose them to sexual exploitation and health risks.”
There have been efforts for more than a decade to address the exploitation of “beer girls” in Southeast Asia, including women working to boost sales of Heineken in bars in Cambodia.
Also known as “promotion girls,” these (primarily young) women encourage male customers to order a particular brand of beer. The women earn relatively low wages, often survive off tips and mingle late in to the night with intoxicated men. Not surprisingly this is a recipe for sexual harassment and abuse.
The author of an upcoming book, Heineken in Africa: A Multinational Unleashed, Olivier van Beemen, writing in the Dutch publication NRC, reports that exploitation of beer girls is also rampant in West Africa. In his article he interviews two young female beer promoters in Nigeria who say they face unwanted groping every night. He also reports that some of the beer girls moonlight as sex workers and some are pressured to sleep with beer company representatives.
The Global Fund says it’s putting the Heineken partnership on ice until Heineken takes “appropriate action” to address the sexual exploitation of women paid to promote its beer.