Posted by Anya Marcelis

Gender-based violence in the context of Covid-19: how can businesses respond?

Gender inequity and other social vulnerabilities are magnified during times of crisis. As seen during previous health crises, women are amongst the first and most negatively affected. One of the most salient social issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic is women and girls’ heightened vulnerabilities to new or exacerbated situations of violence or harassment, both in the workplace and at home, and an exponential increase in gender based violence and harassment (GBVH).

Women who are particularly vulnerable to higher risks of (GBVH) at work include those who were already vulnerable before the pandemic, such as low-paid women working in precarious or informal employment conditions and female migrant workers. In times of economic contraction, these workers are likely to be more dependent on their employers than ever and less likely to raise concerns about GBVH. For women who have transitioned to remote working arrangements, risks of physical forms of GBVH in the workplace may recede, but there is a risk that harassment surfaces through online platforms, with inappropriate comments or sexual harassment emerging through emails, messaging apps, videoconferencing or social media.

Beyond the workplace, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to heightened risks of domestic or intimate partner violence (IPV). For IPV survivors, national lockdowns have led to forced confinement with their abuser (often in small and/or cramped living spaces), and significant obstacles to reporting violence or finding safety. New situations of IPV may further arise from heightened economic insecurity, which often increase tensions and stress in the domestic sphere. Additionally, many women have taken on additional unpaid care responsibilities as a result of lockdown measures, leading to reduced economic choices and increased financial dependence on their partner, enhancing their vulnerability to potential situations of violence at home.

These risks are also likely to lead to further adverse health impacts on women, particularly for survivors of GBVH, from increased unsafe or illegal medical procedures and inadequate treatment due to reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services. Finally, there are specific contexts which increase women’s social or economic vulnerabilities, such as domestic work, women in refugee camps and IDP settlements or contexts where there is likelihood of abuses of power from state officials and armed guards, unless specific safeguarding measures are implemented.

How can employers best respond?

Employers have a responsibility to prevent and mitigate risks of GBVH in the workplace, and are well-positioned to support those who are at risk of IPV. In addition to the broader ‘duty of care’ towards their employees arising from ILO Convention 190 on eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work, in the context of confinement, contact with employers or colleagues may provide the only opportunity for reaching out or reporting situations of domestic violence.

In light of increased GBVH risks, employers should review and reinforce existing policies and measures to safeguard against GBVH, adapting these to changes in the working environment and to new GBVH risks arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. This should include putting in place channels for regular communication and consultation with female (and male) employees to build trust, understand any concerns that employees may have both during and after lockdowns and communicate their renewed commitment to employees’ safety and any changes to policies. Employers should pay particular attention to grievance mechanisms to ensure that they provide for safe and confidential handling of GBVH reports, and are updated to take any changes to working arrangements into account, including remote working and – as workplaces re-open post-lockdown – any new team configurations or changes to working hours. Companies may wish to consider granting additional paid leave to survivors of IPV.

As a starting point for policy review, it may be useful to carry out a dedicated gender-sensitive risk and impact assessment to identify how the changing context may lead to increased vulnerabilities and risks related to GBVH in their specific business operations. For those workers who have started working remotely, the blurring of boundaries between work and home means that addressing violence in “the workplace” needs to consider new risks to worker wellbeing and corresponding safeguards in home offices.

In recognition of increased risks of IPV, employers may wish to circulate up-to-date information amongst employees to raise awareness about IPV and share details for relevant hotlines and support from specialist domestic violence organisations. Companies may also consider reaching out to women’s organisations focused on GBVH and domestic violence in the development of safeguarding policies as this can help ensure their effectiveness.

Although increased GBVH risks in the Covid-19 context create the need for immediate actions, businesses can also use the opportunity to rethink how to integrate safeguards against GBVH more structurally within their organisation to create a long-term workplace culture of employee safety and support, and of non-retaliation for survivors.

Useful resources for business

There is a range of useful resources which employers can draw upon.

Employer guidance on GBVH and domestic violence in the context of Covid-19

Broader employer guidance on GBVH and domestic violence

Resource compilations on gender-based violence and Covid-19