In South Africa, reports of women being killed by their intimate partners are an almost daily news item. For many women, home is not a safe space. But neither is their workplace.
Exact figures aren’t available, but a 2018 report found that 77% of South African women said they’d experienced sexual harassment at some point during their working lives. Many workplace incidents are not reported or are swept under the carpet for fear of repercussions, worry about company or personal reputations or lack of channels for recourse.
What is clear is that incidents where women are physically, sexually or emotionally assaulted or harassed at work or on their way to work, are rooted in the wider problem of violence in our communities and homes. This is a complex social problem, with a foundation in inequality, historical oppression and persistent, harmful and discriminatory social norms around gender, race and culture.
Companies cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the problem in the workplace if they aim to function as effectively and efficiently as possible. Nor can they expect women to leave their personal issues at home, especially their experiences of intimate partner or family violence.
The abuse that women experience at home has a significant impact on their ability to function at work. It is directly linked to reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, job losses and financial losses for businesses. Similarly, gender-based violence in the workplace negatively affects productivity and performance, increases labour costs, reduces returns and profits and tarnishes company reputation.
The private sector can help empower women through workplace-based programmes that improve family relationships and prevent violence at home and at work. The National Strategic Plan (NSP) for Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) specifically mentions the private sector. It’s not clear though, how such entities can become involved in a meaningful way, other than through financial contributions to the Solidarity Fund.
Providing funding and other resources for victim response, such as the GBVF Response Fund1 (launched with R128 million), are important. However, there may be other ways the private sector can make a lasting impact in reducing gender-based violence and femicide in all its forms.
Real, long-term change requires a transformation in norms and behaviours that perpetuate the inequality of women and the use of violence in society. This is by no means a simple undertaking. It is nevertheless essential if we are to see a reduction in gender-based violence and the increased prosperity this will bring.
One vehicle for change are initiatives that promote healthy, non-violent relationships. A handful of these, such as the Becoming One programme in Uganda and Bhandabhero in Rwanda, have shown robust evidence of positive impact. However, they have mostly been delivered in community settings to unemployed or informally employed individuals.
Research shows that in countries where violence prevention programmes are available in the workplace, the space becomes a safe, confidential one where women can access resources and receive support. They can also maintain their employment status and stay economically empowered.
Workplace-based initiatives also decrease practical barriers to attendance. For example, those unable to attend community-based programmes, especially shift workers who work long hours, can have access during the workday.
Aside from the social impact and creation of shared values, such measures positively affect employee well-being and satisfaction in high-income countries. This, in turn, improves productivity and staff retention, reduces absenteeism and is associated with fewer requests for time off to attend appointments related to violence. Outcomes like these should incentivise businesses to implement the programmes.
Until now, there has been little evidence that similar efforts in low- and middle-income countries, including South Africa, can have the same results. This is about to change. The Institute for Security Studies has partnered with Tikketai, an agricultural processing business, to deliver a programme aimed at preventing family violence.
Employees who participated reported improved family relationships, better stress management and healthier conflict resolution with co-workers. Their views were corroborated by the business owner, who says absenteeism has dropped and reported incidents of conflict on the production line are fewer.
These promising outcomes also point to the feasibility of integrating group-based violence prevention into a busy workplace, with minimal disruption to productivity. The project presents an opportunity to make a real and lasting difference in the lives of employees and their families.
Employers have an obligation to create a safe working environment. Training can equip business owners and employees with the skills to support those who experience or perpetrate violence by providing a compassionate response and referral to resources for further support. They can also ensure clear workplace policies on gender-based violence, harassment or abuse that occurs at home or at work, without fear or favour.
As Tikketai has shown, even small businesses can become industry leaders in supporting women and enabling violence prevention. Such frontrunners can encourage or challenge other companies or influence their supply chain partners to do the same, thereby effecting broad positive changes across an entire industry.
Sustainable change takes time. Tackling harmful gender norms and promoting healthy interpersonal relationships in the workplace can improve safety in the long term. By reducing violence against women and offering protection for children, these interventions can break intergenerational cycles of violence. The time to invest in these measures is now.
Thandi van Heyningen, Senior Research Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria
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