‘Stay safe at home’– is a term we hear so very often these days. It is time we reflect and ask ourselves – are all of us really safe at home? If we are, isn’t that privilege by itself? When the world went into lockdown in March 2020, due to COVID-19, another pandemic was brewing - that of domestic violence and has been on the rise ever since.
While victims of domestic violence can be of any identity, women have been reported to be most impacted. UN Women reports that 1 in 3 women were experiencing physical/sexual violence by an intimate partner before the pandemic, and this number increased significantly after COVID-19. This surge has led to domestic violence being labelled as a "shadow pandemic.”
In India, the National Commission for Women (NCW) received a staggering 23,722 complaints of crimes committed against women in 2020. This is the highest number of reports in the last six years! Of these, 7708 complaints were registered under the "right to live with dignity' clause, which takes into account the emotional abuse of women. While unreported, the narratives are that people from other underrepresented groups, persons with disability, the lgbt+ community are equally experiencing different forms of domestic violence.
It is important to first understand what domestic violence is?
Domestic violence is not a one time issue. It is a repeated pattern of behaviours aggregating over time. Domestic violence includes – verbal abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, threat, isolation, stalking and surveillance, sexual abuse, physical violence, financial control, spiritual abuse and many more.
As per the NCW significant number of complaints were also registered under categories of - harassment of married women, dowry harassment, molestation, rape, attempt to rape and cyber crime.
During the lockdown, members of minority groups are forced to stay in close quarters / share space with members of their family who may be abusive. Restrictions on travel meant that survivors often do not have access to their regular support systems, safe spaces and trusted contacts to escape the violence.
With such high numbers and with the boundaries between personal and professional blurring, the question we need to ask is - is it ok for organizations to be mute spectators? We are glad some organizations have already taken that step of asking the question and offering support where needed.
Workplaces could play a critical role by offering support systems!
"Now, why do organizations have to do anything about this at all, isn't domestic violence a personal issue?", you may wonder.
Even if one were to go beyond and look at it from a productivity standpoint, a KPMG study for Vodafone in nine of their markets (2019) indicates that:
- If productivity of domestic violence and abuse victims were 1% lower, the value of lost economic output would be $0.9bn per year
- If productivity were 5% lower, the value of lost economic output would be $4.3bn per year
- If productivity were 10% lower, the value of lost economic output would be $8.6bn per year.
The study also concluded that across the nine Vodafone markets, the workplace impact could be between $2.0 and $9.7 Billion per annum for businesses as a result of domestic violence and abuse related absences and presenteeism.
The study also went ahead and estimated that a further cost to employees of $12.9 Billion per annum is also incurred through lost earnings related to the impact on career progression. The conclusions from this study are reason enough for corporates to see Domestic Violence as not just as a ‘private matter’ but as an employee productivity and well-being issue.
As organizations increasingly encourage employees to “bring their whole selves to work”, it cannot be ignored that what happens in one's personal life has a huge impact on their mental well being, their morale and consequently how committed they are at work. This makes it an important element that needs to be a part of any diversity and inclusion charter, recognizing the fact that specifically under-represented groups may be more vulnerable to this shadow pandemic.
What can organizations do?
While domestic violence has a societal and cultural realm to it, organizations can certainly be of support if any of their employees are going through this. The following are some steps that workplaces, no matter what the scale can take:
- Breaking taboos: As is with any initiative, education is the key. This aids in not just awareness on what constitutes domestic violence and available recourse, but also helps with breaking the stigma and stereotype associated with being a survivor. Sensitization should largely cover the following points:
- Understanding domestic violence, and its relevance at the workplace
- Spotting signs of domestic violence
- How to provide first responder/ peer support in a time of need
- Publishing helplines/NGOs that the survivor can contact, for help and support. (refer to https://tiny.cc/dvguide for helplines across the country)
- Leveraging counselling networks, ensuring they are part of the Employee Assistance Program, to make sure they are equipped and provide support as required
- Ensuring there is reasonable accommodation/support provided – safety leave, flexible working hours, legal assistance, employee transfer, temporary accommodation, medical assistance, performance and compensation protection are a few areas that can be considered.
- Publishing guidelines on action if an employee is a perpetrator: A useful point for organizations to think about would also be – what is to be done incase an employee is known to have perpetrated domestic violence.
While providing support to a survivor is key, organizations must be mindful that they are an intermediary, not an expert in this space. The decision to stay / leave an abusive relationship is ultimately that of the survivor.
Therefore, it would be imperative that workplaces understand their limits while formulating support mechanisms. This defining of personal and professional boundaries go a long way in establishing a robust and holistic support program for survivors of domestic abuse.
India Inc has already embarked on this journey…
With the boundaries of work and home blurring during the pandemic, a few organizations have proactively taken efforts to ensure awareness and safety of their employees' work conditions.
Hindustan Unilever Pvt Ltd has institutionalized a policy to provide support to survivors in terms of compensation & performance protection, leave, accommodation and peer support. The policy not only supports survivors, but also looks at penalizing perpetrators, which makes their policy holistic. Apart from this, they have invested heavily in building awareness for all their employees in India.
While working with Hindustan Unilever on this endeavor, we focused on the emotional as well as the safety aspects – helping employees understand the definition of domestic violence, signs that an employee is going through this, how the ecosystem is supporting survivors through the policy and how employees can provide peer support to one another.
We have also worked with Capgemini in the pivotal steps they have taken in this direction. They have a policy around domestic abuse survivor support as well as an educational toolkit, to equip managers and team members with resources to support all colleagues in case of any form of abuse – verbal, emotional, physical or others.
We do hope many more organizations take a step in breaking the silence and putting an end to this shadow pandemic.