“It’s been really informative. I want to call it institutional rape, because that’s how it felt like to me –It felt like I’ve been raped, it felt like I have been used, left by the roadside after my tasks are finished and left without willpower to carry on my work”, Nishani Ford.
These are the words of Nishani Ford, one of the panellists who spoke during the final online conversation hosted by Womaniko Associates on the last day of the 16 Days of Activism against GBV in 2020. The online sessions brought women together to engage in conversations on what it would take for them to thrive in the ‘new normal’ that has been trusted upon us by the COVID pandemic. The focus of this particular conversation was on gender-based violence (GBV) in the world of work. Nishani spoke these words after listening with horror to the pain expressed in some of the stories shared by the women during the online event.
Before hosting the online event, we had a lot of internal deliberations on why we should hold such a conversation and if we did, what angle it should take. While most of us see the need for campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism against GBV, one of our painful observations is that many people and organisations tend to conveniently only pay attention to issues of GBV at this time of the year, and neglect what happens every other day. Yet women and children are at risk and experience GBV all-year-round. It is also clear that our efforts as a country to stop this scourge will continue to fail if we don’t also address GBV in all its facets including at the workplace. Simply put, we are not winning the war against this ‘shadow’ pandemic, as others call it.
During the conversation, we heard that at the height of the COVID pandemic, the risks and incidents of GBV cases across the country increased dramatically. A July 2020 survey by the Foundation for Human Rights showed a whopping 54% rise in reported GBV cases in their community advice offices across the country during the lockdown. Sadly, this and other statistics published do not reveal enough of what is happening in the world of work and the extent of the magnitude of the challenge. Many cases of GBV in the workplace go unreported for issues that we discuss later. Thus, in line with our commitment to positively influence the workplace and as part of the #Dare2SeeUs Campaign launched jointly by Womaniko and The Well Health Company in October 2020, we decided to focus our conversation on GBV in the world of work.
A key theme emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic is the need for deliberate connections between what happens at home, work and society at large. In any case, the workplace is a microcosm of our society. Yet, despite this reality, many employers often find ways to avoid taking responsibility on issues of GBV. They see this as less of their problem but rather that of government and society in general.
Insights from the stories we heard
An important insight gained from the conversation is that gender-based violence is inherently about power. As noted by one of the speakers, “When there is someone in power, someone else is rendered powerless”. Understanding that GBV is about power should inform our efforts and the kinds of interventions we put in place to stop this pandemic in our society. It is important to consider power differentials when incidences of harassment or abuse are reported in the workplace. Workers who are lower in the ranks, tend to be more vulnerable to abuse from those in higher positions of authority.
From the different stories shared, it was also clear that there are different forms of GBV as well as levels of vulnerability. In as much as GBV is committed by individuals, it also has an institutional dimension. Further, while GBV tends to be seen as mainly sexual, institutional violence can also take other forms that often result in invisible scars, including workplace bullying and cyberbullying. What most concerned us was hearing of how employers fail to act and prevent, eliminate and protect their employees against gender-based violence with some going as far as normalising it. As an example, a young woman shared experiences where her employer told them to always take the interest of the customer first even when they experienced incidences of harassment and bullying from clients. The mistreatment they would suffer at the hands of some of the customers would go unaddressed. In such instances, the employees were told time and again to understand that the bullying they experienced was secondary to the happiness of the customer. A transgender woman shared how she experienced being ‘policed’ when told to ‘dress for her body’. Even further, the workplace did not have appropriate bathroom amenities for the needs of the diverse workforce including transgender people. We also heard about instances in which employers did not take steps to maintain safe working environments for young workers who were expected to work and travel in the night. There were no efforts to ensure that they got to their homes safely.
The levels of vulnerability to GBV varied based on intersections between gender, race, nationality and sexual orientation. One of the panellists shared a migrant perspective and told stories of how difficult it is for foreign women migrants to protect themselves and report cases of GBV. These women often fear reporting incidences of GBV because the police ignore their painful ordeals, choosing instead to focus on their migrant status in South Africa.
What are some practical ways through which GBV in the world of work can be addressed?
If we are to make a dent on GBV in the world of work, leadership buy-in is key in driving interventions and strategies against all forms of GBV. More importantly, such strategies must be accompanied by resources, for without such, any attempts to address this problem are mere tokenism and bound to fail.
Rethink the understanding of what constitute GBV and scope of work interventions
If we are to take serious lessons from the current context where work extends into our home-space, then employers need to reconsider their responsibilities towards addressing GBV. Instead of working hard to find the best possible strategies to avoid taking responsibility, employers should bring back humanity to the world of work. Care for employees must be shown by putting in place measurable, practical processes that would work towards eliminating all forms of GBV. The Employment Equity Commission makes very practical and helpful recommendations that can guide employers in this regard. If adopted, the recommended amendments also place various legal responsibilities upon employers not previously in place. The recommendations include taking responsibility even for GBV incidences that took place outside of their work premises, as long as these were experienced in the course of doing work. Notably, the amendments also broaden this responsibility to include suppliers, contractors, clients and suspended workers and even those whose contracts have been terminated.
GBV requires courage to institute accessible policies and procedures
Employers must show real commitment to the fight against GBV through appropriate policies and measures to ensure safety for those who report such incidences. Such procedures must show appreciation of the real barriers that prevent effective reporting. They must also address ways in which the institutional practices and habits might be contributing to the spread of workplace GBV. Prevention and reporting procedures must consider both informal and formal processes. This is particularly necessary because formal platforms are not always trusted and, in many cases, end up either working against their intended purposes or being underutilized. Many women talk about their fear of secondary victimisation which they experience when they report cases of GBV at work.
Encourage activism to ensure policies and procedures are enforced
There is a need for every institution to encourage and build internal activism in support of its GBV policies and procedures. To be effective, these internal activists need to empowered with specialised training and resources as well as safe spaces in which to operate. With many working groups that exist in different organisations, the efforts of such activists are at times hampered by the unwillingness of the employer to make time for employees to engage. Thus, a commitment to setting aside time for the workforce to reflect on issues of GBV as well as clear roles and targets is important.
Our experience in the interactions with the various organisations as well as the online discussions has confirmed that gender-based violence in the workplace is a real and unattended pandemic. We have also learnt the need for each organisation to put in place intentional and safe processes to enable employees to engage on the problem. If we fail to do so, we are complicit in promoting and institutionalizing workplace gender-based violence.