Workplaces are not only social spaces regulated by company rules, but a microcosm of a particular society. South Africa is a violent society, particularly violence against women and children.
The country’s latest crime figures show that on average, three children and 12 women were murdered each day over the three months from October to December last year.
Unfortunately, this violence happens in the workplace as well. Since it is entrenched, it’s often difficult to know how to act to protect oneself.
According to a study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), more than one in five employed people have experienced some form of violence and/or harassment at the workplace, either physical, psychological or sexual.
This is a high number, but what is more concerning is that this violence often goes unreported. Victims often feel it’s a waste of time for a variety of reasons, including: that nothing gets done; fear for their reputation; fear they will get the blame; fear there might be social and professional retaliation; and, fear about retaliatory civil or criminal charges. And so they opt for silence, or walk away.
As a result, only half of the victims report what has happened, though more women (60.7%) do so than men (50.1%). The ILO study shows that globally, more women than men have experienced sexual violence and/or harassment, while more men have experienced physical and/or psychological violence.
Examples of gender-based violence at the workplace include bullying, intimidation, threats, emotional abuse, actual physical and psychological abuse, and sexual abuse.
Although violence at the workplace affects both men and women, women are disproportionately more exposed to humiliating work conditions such as inappropriate jokes, insinuations and comments, and when they are asked for sexual favours.
These read like horror stories because we would all like to believe that workplaces are regulated professional spaces, but they are often far from it.
These subtle yet damaging occurrences stifle the growth and upward mobility of those affected. It’s therefore important for those affected to be able to identify what is happening and know how to protect themselves.
Employers must create a conducive environment for employees to be able to speak up and report incidents. Training must be provided for all employees so they know the signs and can identify the behaviours.
Among the ways employers can create a conducive environment for reporting is to develop policies that make clear violence and harassment will not be tolerated.
The Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace can be used as a starting point and for guidelines.
Employers may also collect data and conduct regular research on experiences of violence and harassment at the workplace, to constantly check the pulse and be in a position to respond to acts of violence so as to build a zero-tolerance culture.
They can also empower women and promote them to decision-making positions so as to create an equal work environment.
Employers could also contribute by providing support structures for survivors of violence in order to end the shame that contributes to under-reporting.
These are some of the ways employers may regulate the workplace so as to contribute towards ending gender-based violence.
However, these are difficult to regulate because the violence often happens in social settings. This violence also serves a purpose, and is often used to maintain the status quo and to keep certain individuals in their place, and preserve the current social order. It will therefore require strong action to dismantle these.
As we commemorate 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, let us consider that gender-based violence has a long lasting impact on the physical, mental, social and economic health of those affected.
Trauma from psychological and physical abuse can prevent someone from seeking job opportunities. According to KPMG, gender-based violence costs South Africa an estimated R28.4 billion to R42.4bn a year.
The real cost of continuing as an unequal society is the exclusion of women and girl children from equal access to opportunities and being able to advance economically.
Employers can contribute by taking a stronger stance on the issues and investing in relevant programmes aimed at creating widespread awareness. These may start by addressing certain gender norms and stereotypes, and include practical guidelines to assist both perpetrators and victims to understand their own behaviours and consequences.
A violence-free society has the potential to enable all parties to focus resources on what matters most, which is to drive the economic growth of the country and socio-economic development for all.
Sibongile Vilakazi is the president of the Black Management Forum.