Ending the hidden scourge of violence against women at work


You may well have come across the shocking statistic that more than one in three women globally will experience some form of violence in their lifetime, the vast majority of which (30 per cent) will be at the hands of an intimate partner.

The dire consequences of such violence – a daily occurrence for many women - can extend far beyond their physical, sexual and and mental health, to impact upon many other areas of their lives. This includes women’s working lives.

Research in Vietnam and Tanzania shows that women experiencing domestic violence have higher levels of work absenteeism and lower productivity and earnings. This can potentially lock women in to situations of economic dependency on abusive partners, perpetuating a cycle of violence and control.

However, what the ‘one in three’ statistic doesn’t capture are the vast numbers of women subjected to gender-based violence in their places of work.

The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that up to half of women experience sexual harassment at work, a figure borne out by Mexico’s National Institute for Women, which put the figure there at 46 per cent.

This amounts to millions of women in offices and supply chains throughout the world producing clothes, electronics, and fruit and vegetables, or providing services in sectors such as tourism or domestic work, experiencing bullying, harassment, verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault and body searches, as well as violations of their sexual and reproductive rights, such as forced pregnancy tests.

Toxic and hazardous working conditions that leave women exposed to health risks or even death – such as the 1,100 women who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh – can also be seen as a form of violence stemming from systemic government and corporate negligence.

But women enduring harassment and violence at the hands of colleagues, supervisors and managers rarely get justice.

The same study in Mexico found that a quarter of women reporting sexual harassment were dismissed, while a staggering 40 per cent were forced to leave their jobs. With livelihoods at risk, along with the shame and blame that is so often place on women who speak out, it is likely reporting levels are extremely low.

As called for in a new report by ActionAid, Fearless, it is high time that the world stood firm with the countless brave women around the world working tirelessly to tackle violence against women, including the largely overlooked issue of violence at work.

One critical way governments can do this is by backing the anticipated target on eradicating all forms of violence against women and girls in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), due to launch in September.

Another is to get behind the calls, spearheaded by trade unions, for a new ILO Convention on gender-based violence at work. Vitally, both initiatives will need to entail more than mere words, but also political will, adequate financing, and the championing of women’s organisations so that they can hold those in power to account and ensure this abhorrent human rights violation finally becomes a thing of the past.