This blog post was authored by Hans Peter Lankes, vice president of economics and private sector development at the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, more than one in three women could expect to experience some form of violence in their lifetimes. Sadly, cases of gender-based violence have been rising since the outbreak of COVID-19.
The physical, mental, and emotional toll is staggering. Children shouldn’t have to grow up in fear of violence, especially in their own homes. At the same time, this scourge is having a direct impact on businesses, by affecting employee safety, attendance, and productivity. It damages companies’ financial performance, reputation, and overall resilience.
Businesses have a moral duty—and a financial responsibility—to act.
In some countries, even pre-pandemic, gender-based violence was estimated to cost up to 3.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—more than double what most governments spend on education. Gender-based violence also directly affects the bottom line. Research from Fiji, for example, shows that high rates of domestic and sexual violence translate into lost staff time and reduced productivity equivalent to almost ten days of work per employee each year.
Estimates by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) indicate that six months of pandemic-related lockdowns could result in 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence and an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence for every three months that lockdowns continue, due at least in part to curtailed prevention and protection efforts.
Violence in workplace settings can take many forms, including customer and client aggression toward employees; workplace bullying and sexual harassment among employees or with others connected to the firm; sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by employees towards customers, clients, and community members; and domestic and sexual violence experienced by employees in their homes.
COVID-19 is also increasing the risk of stigmatization, discrimination, and violence against people perceived to be “outsiders,” such as migrant workers, those from ethnic minorities, those who do not speak the dominant language, or sexual and gender minority populations.
Seeking help for gender-based violence might be more difficult in the current context. In a time when many companies are downsizing, employees fear an increased risk of retaliation, including being fired. Compounding these problems, many victims and survivors of violence may find it difficult to access external support, especially during lockdowns, and may distrust reporting systems.
While this may feel overwhelming, businesses can take steps to build a culture that encourages employees to act when they witness, hear about, or experience violence in any form.
What can businesses do?
IFC has produced a “Guidance Note for Employers on COVID-19 and GBV Workplace Risks and Responses” to help firms deal with these issues.
Some recommendations include making sure employees are aware of the heightened risk of violence during the pandemic; developing systems to protect employees against customer and client aggression; creating safe ways for victims and bystanders to report problems; ensuring that women and marginalized groups are not disproportionately disadvantaged when downsizing the workforce; and providing a safe space for employees who are victims of domestic violence to get help.
Forward-looking businesses, such as Solomon Airlines in Solomon Islands, have begun implementing the guidance and have reported that employees who receive training are behaving more respectfully toward one another and feeling safer at work. Male employees have shown signs of being more conscious of the language they use with their female colleagues, according to the company. Staff are also more willing to intervene when they witness disrespectful behavior, including dealing with passenger aggression brought on by the pandemic.
Gender-based violence is a threat to businesses, their employees, and the communities in which they operate. As we battle this coronavirus pandemic, we must also take on the scourge of gender-based violence, for the sake of our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, our colleagues, our present and future leaders, and ourselves.