Safer Workplace for Domestic Violence Survivors

Fostering a Safer Workplace for Domestic Violence Survivors

“The more that we choose not to talk about domestic violence, the more we shy away from the issue, the more we lose.”- Russell Wilson.

According to a report developed by WHO, globally almost 30% of women have experienced some form of domestic abuse. That’s one in every three women. The range of domestic violence varies, from femicide to verbal abuse. It is necessary to understand that this is a continuum and a minuscule manifestation of brutality can be an alarming signal. Even the smallest act of cruelty have significant consequences on an aggrieved woman’s physical and mental health. To truly and thoroughly understand the various forms of domestic violence, different types of victims, profiles of perpetrators and nature of ramifications, the subject has to be delineated. For the purpose of this article, the definition of domestic violence is as per Section 3 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 which means causing any injury or harm to the life, health, safety and wellbeing of the aggrieved woman by committing any form of physical, mental, psychological, emotional, sexual or verbal abuse. It also includes any form of domestic violence caused to the aggrieved woman or any of her relative with a view to coerce her or any person, to meet unlawful dowry demand. Deprivation of her income or her basic amenities along with threats and intimidation to commit such violence are also covered under this definition.

Violence against women and targeting them is an impediment in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, i.e., to leave no one behind. Hence, this form of abuse is a serious hindrance to the progress of women. In domestic violence, the violence is perpetrated at survivors’ home, the perpetrator’s home, their shared household, workplace and other public establishments. There has been an escalation in the domestic violence case globally since the lockdown has been implemented. Confinement due to restriction in the movement has led to economic and logistical constraints that are causing psychological and emotional pressure on many households. In India, the chairperson of NCW stated that there has been a stark increase in domestic violence case. According to her, the series of lockdown has incapacitated the survivors of domestic violence and have prevented them from finding safer rescue shelters and also hindered their communication with their friends and families, who usually are survivors’ first point of contact. Commenting on the global trend of increase in the rate of domestic violence during the pandemic, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rightly observed, “Violence against women is…causing harm to millions of women and their families and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, But unlike COVID-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine.” The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres reiterated the same, “Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for COVID-19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes. Today I appeal for peace in homes around the world.”

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A victim of domestic violence knows better than anyone the danger of “stepping away” or “leaving” their abuser. Power dynamics are initially reinforced in seemingly harmless ways but gradually in a systematic manner, it becomes hostile. The perpetrator of domestic violence thrives on their ability to control. They exhibit all kind of controlling behaviour like isolating the victim from her friends and/or her family, stalking, tracking through GPS monitoring, sabotaging employment, non-consensual sexual act, transmitting STD, strangling, withholding money, running huge debt in the victim’s name etc. Thus to combat domestic violence it is necessary to strengthen the capacity of law enforcement, revolutionize laws and policies both at the governmental and organisational level for seeking accountability and providing financial and emotional security to an aggrieved woman. Especially in these times, when a majority of the workforce is homebound and working from home, it is crucial to understand that support at or from the workplace can and should ideally be provided.

How can organisations and employers help in combating domestic violence?

The boom of multinational companies in this century has changed the social culture and infrastructure. To be aligned with the progressive social momentum, companies are actively adopting policies that address human resource management issues and associated gender inequality. While many companies are implementing policies to address issues like sexual harassment at workplace, the glass ceiling, the gender pay gap etc., there are very few companies like Unilever, Hindustan Unilever India, Vodafone, Facebook, and Standard Chartered Bank etc that have specific domestic violence policy and auxiliary mechanism in place.

As observed by François-Henri Pinault “Everyone of us is surrounded by victims”. Emancipation of victims happens only through empowerment. Companies have become global players, touching and transforming lives. For companies to sustain, it has to operate ethically, be socially responsible, have accountability and take interest in social issues. Women comprise a huge chunk of the workforce in India, and companies are under a social obligation to have precautionary, preventive, redressal and rehabilitative policies in place for them. Employees come to the workplace with their skill sets and contribute to the growth of the company, but being intrinsically human, they also carry with them the baggage of hurt and personal problems. It is therefore the employer’s inevitable responsibility to provide a workplace to the employee that is safe and protected. To combat and address this issue, employers and colleagues could play a pivotal role in the rescue and rehabilitation process. Domestic violence issue is hence a workplace issue because it causes impaired performance, lack of motivation, absenteeism, tardiness, frequent calls and visits from an abusive partner at the workplace, threat and intimidation to colleagues. Abusive spouses or intimate partner may use workplace resources to damage the reputation of the victim, which can also include making it difficult or impossible for the victim to go to work, or even take away their salaries/savings. There is safety and security issue also, as the abuser is aware of the whereabouts of the victim during her working hours and there have been instances where perpetrators have not refrained from creating ugly scenes at workplaces of the victim.

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In addition to companies’ civic responsibility, there are substantial financial concerns to the stakeholders, when the workplace has survivors of domestic violence. According to studies conducted by the United Nation and its agencies, violence against women amounts to a significant economic cost annually, as the productivity of the victim takes a hit, which consequently affects the organisation. This then has a ripple effect on the varied functions of an organisation.

When organisations have domestic violence policies in place, employees are more likely to feel comfortable talking to their HR, colleagues or supervisors, knowing that they will not lose their job. During the pandemic, when victims are in a predicament of having to live under the same roof as their abuser, sending SOS signals have become more so difficult. Survivors need external support in such cases, therefore employers should sensitize their employees, about signals and gestures they can make to alert their colleagues on video conferences. Efforts like such have proved to be an effective mechanism to combat marital abuses during this grim time. Working women find the workplace to be their safe haven and the only place where their abuser does not necessarily have direct control. And if a victim gains strength and contemplates leaving their abuser, they need to have a job, as economic independence is of utmost importance in them doing so. The kind of support that has to be provided to survivors may vary. While some would need emotional and psychological counselling, others would need logistical solutions like childcare, housing and financial assistance. Requisite needs of the survivors necessitate tailored help.

It is pertinent to understand that while making domestic violence policies at an organisational level, survivors’ welfare should be a priority but attention has to be given to the perpetrators as well. Because when the statistics show that one in every three women have faced domestic violence, it implies that while we are surrounded by victims of domestic violence, we are also surrounded by their wrongdoers. Hence, organisations need to incorporate provisions in their policies to sensitize, detect, prevent and care (counselling and therapy for anger management) for their employees who are perpetrators or potential perpetrators of domestic violence.

Presently there is ample opportunity for companies to plan awareness and sensitization programmes, incorporate gender-based issues in their corporate policies. Deliberate upon adopting toolkits made readily available by companies like Vodafone, Unilever and Standard Chartered Bank for global use on an administrative level. And as an interim measure, assist their employees to seek legal remedies and grant paid leaves for survivors to attend court hearings, counselling or recreation. Employers can also facilitate counselling and have trained psychologist, doctors and caseworkers at the workplace. Organisations can thus help in a multidimensional way, taking into account the financial and social status of their employees. A leaflet can be taken out of Lijjat Papad Organisation’s (the world’s largest women-run papad retailers) progressive policy. This organisation opened savings account for their employees. A small portion of employees’ earnings and Diwali bonus was deposited by the company itself in those saving accounts when they found out that the liquid cash given out as daily wage was a cause of domestic violence in many households. Likewise, every company and its stakeholders must adopt effective mechanism as they have an indispensable responsibility of combating domestic violence in society.

– Adv. Deeksha Rai, Advocate & Associate

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