How Can Business Respond to the Increase in Domestic Violence During COVID-19?

By Alice Allan, Business Fights Poverty Natalie Deacon, Avon Foundation for Women. Jane Pillinger, Open University

Prior to COVID-19, already 1 in 3 women were estimated to experience violence in their lifetimes. Now, as the UN has noted, the economic and social stresses, as well as restrictions on movement and confinement, have dramatically increased the numbers of women and girls facing violence and abuse from intimate partners, in almost all countries.

There is a 30% increase in reported cases in France and a 25% increase in calls to emergency lines in Spain. In the UK, the charity Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its web helpline over a 24 hour period. The pandemic is also likely to increase the amount of online harassment and abuse women face due to the increase in online working patterns.  Other forms of violence including child marriage and trafficking are expected to increase in fragile contexts as a result of the economic impacts of the emergency.

This rise in violence is happening at a time of reduced capacity of service providers (health, police, judicial, social services) to cope with the increased demand.

There are ethical, business and legal reasons for business to take action. Domestic violence and sexual harassment at work result in significant impacts on worker wellbeing, losses to productivity and reputation. A new Global Convention (ILO Convention No.190) was agreed in 2019 to tackle violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and domestic violence, in the world of work, and some companies have been taking action across their organisations. The COVID-19 pandemic will require increased and altered action by business.

A new Business Fights Poverty Action Toolkit suggests that there are two main ways business can do this.

Firstly they can adopt measures to protect their own employees. This will mean overcoming the challenges of doing so when contact with an employee is maintained only through online and telephone communication. 

Secondly business can harness its core business, its philanthropic funds and its influence on public policy, to tackle the issue more widely.  For example, Avon has developed a multi-pronged campaign ‘Isolated not Alone’ to raise awareness of domestic violence during the COVID-19 crisis. It includes a $1m commitment to front-line services; mobilising their sales network to offer lifesaving sign-posting to those affected, and using its influence to communicate its concerns to government.

Below are illustrative examples of action. Please refer to the full toolkit for more.

1) Protecting employees internally

  • Undertake a risk assessment and mitigation plan for the women most at risk of economic insecurity and violence in your supply chain e.g. garment workers.
  • Communicate. Use daily electronic messages (SMS, WhatsApp message, email other corporate channels), to inform employees about the heightened risk of domestic violence and online abuse, with advice about where they can seek help. 
  • Adapt reporting procedures for confinement. e.g. train managers and set up a cover/secret code and a secure channel (hotline, App, Whatsapp) to report cases and seek help. Work with police or domestic violence experts to carry out an immediate risk assessment and safety plan if an employee discloses.
  • Publicise an up-to-date list of domestic violence support services that survivors can access for online and telephone support, counselling, legal assistance, recognising that many of these services will have changed or provided differently. 
  • Support women’s leadership during the response. Involve women from diverse backgrounds in leadership positions and decision-making around the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery efforts.

2) Harnessing core business and working with others for wider change

  • Maintain supplies of essential services for survivors e.g. emergency contraception and antiretroviral drugs to prevent the transmission of HIV post exposure. 
  • Scale-up and leverage existing online and virtual platforms e.g.the MyPlan app in the US and the Vodafone/Hestia ‘Bright Sky’ app which helps with safety decisions if an individual is experiencing abuse.
  • Train health care (and other) personnel to identify and refer cases. e.g. as happening in pharmacies and supermarkets in Spain and France.
  • Provide secure and safe accommodation by supporting existing providers and by collaborating with the hospitality industry to increase the provision of safe spaces and shelters.
  • Ensure workers are financially supported during the pandemic e.g. Government’s and employer associations in South East Asia are working to provide financial support to garment workers who have lost their jobs due to cancellations of orders by major retailers. Brands need to consider how they can also financially support these efforts.  Rapid digitization of wages, sick pay and benefits is also important for those most affected at the bottom of the supply chain.
  • Develop public awareness raising campaigns/engage in the debate of the heightened risks of domestic violence and abuse in the home and online, and ensure the messaging also reaches men and boys. See for example social media campaigns from Avon #Isolated NotAlone and Kering #YouAreNotAlone.

Whilst immediate actions are necessary, there is also an important window of opportunity to fundamentally rethink how society addresses gender-based violence and domestic violence and abuse in particular.  Businesses need to encourage this conversation and collaborate with all relevant partners including government, civil society/NGOs, workers’ organisations and service providers.

This includes:

  • Shifting the assumption that women and children should move out of the home rather than removing the abuser
  • Engaging men and boys in gender transformative approaches to ending violence against women, including, for example, education and campaigns on unhealthy and harmful masculinities. And funding specialist NGO’s that support potential and actual perpetrators.
  • Shifting the unequal distribution of global caring roles to achieve greater gender equality e.g. encouraging more men to participate in caring jobs including health and education and enabling more men to share unpaid care work through improved paternity policies.

Despite the challenging times we are experiencing it is clear that there are a number of ways that business can help prevent and protect those experiencing violence. This is also an opportunity to think through new, innovative and inclusive strategies for the future. To find out more and access the Action Toolkit, click here.


Alice Allan, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty

Natalie Deacon, Executive Director Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, Avon, and President, Avon Foundation for Women

Jane Pillinger, Expert, Gender Based Violence in the Workplace, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow, Open University

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