How Covid-19 Shows that Companies Can Play a Role in Decreasing Domestic Violence

Cécile Guignard ESSECCécile Guignard, MSc in Management student, ESSEC Business School winner of the CoBS 2020 student CSR article competition, plunges into the issue of domestic violence, on the increase since the implementation of lockdown due to Covid-19, and asserts that economic slowdown is an opportunity for companies to prepare their policies

A full list of sources and references is included at the foot of this article

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32%. After only 10 days of confinement, French authorities registered a 32% increase in domestic violence reports. A worldwide pattern: +50% in Jinzhou (Hubei province, China), +22% in Seattle. Wherever lockdown is implemented to fight the COVID19 pandemic, domestic violence escalates. In a context where denouncing a violent partner is even more difficult as he is present, there are reasons to suspect a much higher rise of occurrences of intimate violence. Lockdown adds economic, psychological and logistical pressure on many households. And while it can be a mentally rough time for many of us, it has dramatic consequences for women in abusive relationships. Trapped in their houses, women are more prey than ever to controlling, abusive and violent behaviors from their partners. This dire situation underscores how social interaction and professional occupation can be life-saving escape routes for women suffering from domestic violence.

What is domestic violence? The types of violence women are exposed to are so diverse that one needs to delineate the subject. In this article I decided to focus on a rather common view of domestic violence: every violence (physical, sexual, psychological, economic or administrative) perpetrated on a woman by a partner or an ex-partner. Most of these acts of violence are perpetrated at the victim’s or the perpetrator’s home (83,2% in France in 20183) – a figure that is likely to increase during lockdown times. I deliberately chose to exclude children from the scope of my study – although they are particularly at risk when domestic violence takes place in their home, I believe that companies cannot directly address this specific issue. Instead, I want to enhance the various ways businesses can contribute to decreasing domestic violence against women, and particularly against their employees. I also excluded male victims from my study: while it is crucial to give them access to defense mechanisms, I believe that those mechanisms should be conceived with a particular focus on women, who represent the majority of the victims (86% in France in 20174).

Why companies have a role to play in fighting domestic violence

Covid, companies and domestic violenceCompanies are often under the spotlight for addressing (or not) gender matters: hiring discriminations, the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling, sexual harassment at work, etc. – just some of the issues women can encounter throughout their career. But corporate gender policies rarely focus on domestic violence. “Domestic” refers in Latin to what “belongs to the household”, and companies are not households. Furthermore, separating professional and private life is often a challenge in our connected societies and firms don’t want to step into their employees’ privacy. However, like other workers, employed victims spend the majority of their time at work. Colleagues and bosses often account for most of their social interactions. In addition, as François-Henri Pinault – CEO of Kering and co-founder of the European corporate network against domestic violence – acknowledged: “Every one of us is surrounded by victims”. Indeed, one in three women will be victim of gender-based violence during her lifetime. While this figure encompasses acts of sexual violence perpetrated by non-partners, domestic violence accounts for most of the violence undergone by women, according to a study led by the World Health Organization in 2013. As such, companies cannot turn a blind eye on this domestic violence, as it is highly likely that one or more of their female employees are concerned.

There is a large range of domestic violence, from verbal harassment to feminicide, and not all of them have the same seriousness or consequences. However, it is essential to understand that instances of violence are a continuum and that the smallest manifestation of brutality might already be an alarming signal. All these manifestations have significant consequences on women’s physical and mental health: high levels of stress, depression, use of alcohol or drugs, chronic illness, for example. Even cancers or insulin-dependent diabetes can be linked with domestic violence according to the World Health Organization. Moreover, violent spouses sometimes restrict their victims from accessing care. These health issues have concrete consequences for companies: attention deficit, efficiency loss, work interruption. As such, female employees are not always in the best physical and mental shape to perform their tasks, which directly impacts the company’s performance. A study funded by the European program Daphne also demonstrated that domestic violence affects a victim’s colleagues’ work capacity, as they fear for her safety. Overall, violence against women has an estimated economic cost of €228 billion annually. Beyond the firms’ civic responsibility as stakeholders of our society, there is a huge business issue in tackling domestic violence.

What companies can do without out-passing their area of competency

Covid and domestic violenceAccording to Companies Against Gender Violence, a two-year EU campaign, there are numerous tools firms can implement to protect their employees from domestic violence. These tools can be summed up in three categories: 1) raising awareness at a corporate level, 2) working with all the involved stakeholders, 3) identifying and supporting victims. Depending on its size, not every firm can implement each tool, but it is important that even small organizations try to develop at least awareness campaigns and identify specialists they can refer to if needed.

The workplace is often the only escape from a toxic domestic environment for victims of intimate violence. As such, it might be the sole place where to denounce what they undergo at home. Still, speaking up is everything but easy: many victims are ashamed or afraid of the consequences their confession might have on their professional situation. For women to feel like they are going to be listened to in a careful, non-judgmental way, it is crucial for companies to raise awareness internally. This will both help victims to name their issue and enable colleagues and/or relevant contact persons to know how to respond to their cry for help. In addition, a corporate domestic violence policy must be instated, either stand-alone or included in other health- or gender-related policies. This policy has to plan both emergency protocols and awareness campaigns. The latter can take various forms: stickers and booklets in common areas, e-learning modules to be followed by every new employee, learning expeditions with relevant associations, etc. The PSA Group, for example, trained 150 managers on domestic violence and organized a photographic exhibition on the subject in its main logistical factory.

In developing protocols and campaigns, businesses will need the support of all stakeholders. Indeed, companies often cannot offer themselves the necessary support to a victim of intimate partner violence, and will need to rely on specialists – practitioners, public institutions, women associations, legal experts. These specialists can also provide training sessions as part of the awareness campaigns. It is shown that victims are more prone to reveal what they undergo after having taken part in such sessions. On the other hand, developing partnerships is also key to stakeholders who need corporate financial support and access to otherwise unreachable victims. Businesses are also potential employers of violence survivors that stakeholders work with. In Spain – a country known for having decreased the number of feminicides by 33% since 2003 – a consortium of public and private organizations enabled the reinsertion of 1,426 women in four years. Employing women is recognized as one of the most efficient means to help them get out of and recover from abusive relationships according to the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty on gender-based violence.

How companies can support victims…and perpetrators

CSR and employee wellbeingOnce the victims feel comfortable enough to reveal their situation, they should be able to do so: anonymous mailboxes, informative apps and identified contact persons are necessary. These contact persons should be aware of both corporate and external solutions that exist in order to help in the best possible manner. Victims don’t always appear as such – bruises are easy to hide, and behavioral issues may remain unnoticed. Colleagues must be able to speak out as well, and greater care ought to be then taken by managers when asking the suspected victim about her situation and handling the situation with her team. Brussel’s public hospitals had a brilliant idea on the matter: they developed prevention plans for every “personal issue” their employees could encounter. The spectrum of issues being so wide, women can go to consult psychologists without revealing the specific matter to their colleagues.

Supporting a victim involves various means, depending on her situation and necessities: some women will need financial support, others logistical solutions like housing, time or psychological aid. The help given must always be tailored to the woman’s requisites and bear no judgment. There are so many valid reasons for a woman to stay with a violent partner: financial pressure, psychological dependence, children among them. Extreme situations cannot always be solved by her escaping from home. However, in such cases, employers can provide support in many ways: changing the employee’s work contact details and (when necessary) location, alleviating her work schedule, or helping her fund childminding or find a new place. The French company Orange focuses on the latter. The “Housing Action Plan” enables staff members suffering domestic abuse to find housing safely and quickly. Special reinsertion policies (like those implemented after a burn-out) and financial support may also be significant for women for whom losing a job means becoming totally dependent on their partner. Finally, there is a need for trained specialists in the workplace (doctors, caseworkers, psychologists) or for partnerships with occupational physicians when the company cannot afford or doesn’t need a full-time health expert.

What about perpetrators? Although a disturbing subject, the case of aggressive partners must be addressed as well. The Istanbul Convention highlights the need for detection, prevention and care of both victims and perpetrators. Like victims, violent spouses often work (albeit domestic violence is correlated with unemployment) and mechanisms exist that can help them withhold their aggressive impulses. Again, working together with specialized organizations is key: therapists can support (potential) perpetrators through recognizing and channeling their inner violence, finding ways of expressing themselves positively and identifying the significance of safe spaces. Dedicated centers can offer adequate treatments and prevent relapse. The Fundamental Rights Agency tackles the lack of such structures, which could benefit from corporate funding. If taking care of victims is the priority, attention must also be given to their persecutors.

Back to Covid-19: How it highlights what we already know

How companies can help decrease domestic violenceThe Covid-19 pandemic emphasizes that more than anything, victims of intimate partner violence need safe spaces outside of their houses. They might not escape from the relationship – because they cannot, do not want to or if the violence is perpetrated by an ex-partner. But they need external support. Professional interactions, sometimes being the only possible social relationships, are essential for the victims to have a space to relax, confess or acknowledge that they are facing an issue.

While exploring how businesses can help decrease domestic violence, we find that many tools can be implemented remotely: the economic slowdown could be an opportunity to plan an awareness campaign or work on a corporate policy for gender-based issues. Email addresses and Intranets remain available for sharing messages and occupational psychologists are more than ever to be identified. And why not use the staff’s potential downturn in activity to have them follow an online course on domestic violence? Companies, and managers also bear the responsibility of checking on their female subordinates, who might be having a hard time at home.

As for the end of the pandemic, acts of violence are not going to cease with lockdown. Rather, one can fear an ongoing rise in the aftermath of the crisis. With the loss of their jobs, the financial pressure that comes with it and the strong impact confinement can have on mental health, women will remain at risk. Companies have a responsibility in acting now – and afterwards.

Useful links:

References used in this article:

  • [CARVE 2013] Companies Against Gender Violence (CARVE), L’implication des entreprises dans la lutte contre les violences faites aux femmes. Etude nationale – France (2013).
  • [CARVE 2016] Companies Against Gender Violence (CARVE), Agir contre les violences faites aux femmes. Guide pour les entreprises (2016).
  • [CC 2020] CASTANER Christophe, French Minister of the Interior, “Confinement : jusqu’à quand ?” (26.03.2020), Vous avez la parole.
  • [COE 2011] Council of Europe (COE), Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as Istanbul Convention (2011). Articles cited: 6, 12, 15, 16, 18.
  • [DAV 2018] Délégation d’Aide aux Victimes, Etude nationale sur les morts violentes au sein du couple 2018 (2018).
  • [EAVA 2013] European Added Value Assessment (EAVA), Combatting violence against women (2013).
  • [FRA 2014] Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), Violence against women: an EU-wide survey (2014).
  • [ST 2020] ZHANG Wanqing, “Domestic Violence Cases Surge During COVID-19 Epidemic” (02.03.2020), Sixth Tone.
  • [SVF 2020] Secrétariat d’Etat chargé de l’Egalité entre les femmes et les hommes et de la lutte contre les discriminations, “Les chiffres de référence sur les violences faites aux femmes”, Stop-Violences-Femmes.gouv.fr (accessed 03/27/2020).
  • [SYF 2011] Asociación Salud y Familia, Coping with the impact of partner violence at workplace. Practical guide (2011).
  • [WHO 2013] World Health Organization, Global and regional estimates on violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence (2013).

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