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