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How to Celebrate 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: Corporate Edition

While doing research for this article I found many working papers, news articles, blog posts, and policy briefs that talk about eliminating the violence that is perpetuated against women. However, the reason that was elaborated on in many of these papers shocked me. Almost all of them mentioned how gender-based violence decreases productivity and development. To quote a 2011 working paper published by the International Labour Organization titled ‘Gender-based violence in the world of work’- “Gender-based violence not only causes pain and suffering but also devastates families, undermines workplace productivity, diminishes national competitiveness, and stalls development.” I find this quote particularly interesting because this quote shows how much less importance we give to an issue like gender-based violence. As if violating someone’s basic human rights, destroying someone’s life, or giving them life-long trauma in itself are not good enough reasons to act upon this atrocious crime. We need more incentives such as decreasing workplace productivity and minimizing profit to take action. I feel this is the first thing that needs to be changed when we discuss gender-based violence in corporate settings. Gender-based violence both reflects and reinforces inequalities between women and men. At least one in three women around the world is estimated to have been coerced into sex, physically beaten, and/or otherwise abused in her lifetime. The numbers we see in statistics are not mere numbers, they are living-breathing human beings. They are our colleagues. And when one of them is the victim of such a punishable crime, the one thing they deserve and crave above anything else is support from their peers. Therefore, you can also contribute to this year’s 16 Days Activism Against Gender-Based Violence by creating a safer office environment for your female colleagues and showing solidarity with this year’s theme: “UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls.”

How to Create a Safer Corporate Environment
A safe corporate environment can be established in many ways. But I believe we can generalize it down to four simple steps. Now, I said the steps are simple but that does not mean they are easy. Some steps may take time to get implemented completely. Also, as we are trying to bring change to a human environment, we need to be realistic. It is nearly impossible that everyone will change themselves according to the necessary steps. But as long as the majority follow these, a safer environment can be ensured and we can tackle gender-based violence in the corporate world.
1) Implementing Safeguarding Policies: To safeguard women’s rights it is important to have some set of concrete rules to hold the perpetrator accountable. Most women do not raise their voices against workplace violence because they are aware there is no procedure for accountability, this is truer in the context of Bangladesh. And as a result, the whole incident will turn into a ‘he said/ she said’ drama, if she decides to protest the assault. The victim not only has to tolerate the mental distress of being harassed but also goes through a very public humiliation which turns her working environment into a nightmare for her. Therefore, it is important to have safeguarding policies where victims can complain anonymously without any fear of termination or humiliation. It is also important that the safeguarding policies are not used as a smoke screen to portray an ‘inclusive work culture’ when the reality is far from it. Although the notion of safeguarding policy is a work in progress, we can assume that our corporate industries are going on the right path when mainstream associations like BGMEA which represents Bangladesh’s one of the largest industries signs MoU with BRAC Social Compliance program on the safeguarding (gender-based violence and workplace harassment prevention) of garment workers.
2) Men as an Ally: This is the most crucial step in preventing gender-based violence in the workplace. Any safeguarding policy will be bound to fail if men and women both do not respect and follow them. A male colleague who is also a part of the investigation committee needs to be an ally to the victim, otherwise, there will never be a fair judgment. If someone whom the female colleagues do not see as an ally is part of the investigation committee then they will lose faith in the committee for giving any unbiassed verdict. Again, someone who is not an ally cannot be trusted with such sensitive information as there is a possibility of him leaking the information.
Apart from this, it is also important that men colleagues are allies to their female counterparts because it helps to create a genuinely inclusive work environment. Allied men can call out their male peers for their sexist behaviors, and misogynistic attitudes.
3) Eliminating Rape Culture: Unfortunately, we live in a culture where victim-blaming is very common. The South Asian culture normalizes any sexual assaults or violence and blames it on the victim. Even though she was the one who got assaulted, society somehow finds a way to pin the woman for being assaulted- either she was too “friendly” or her clothes were inviting unwanted male gaze. Sometimes they are even blamed for just doing their jobs- why did she need to stay in the office at night? In an environment like this, it is impossible for a woman to feel safe. It is the job of the office authority to ensure that the water-cooler discussions do not turn into the source of female objectification or moral policing. Any kind of locker-room talk needs to be prohibited in the office. However, it is impossible to track these if male colleagues do not actively call out their peers who engage in such activities.
4) Unlearning and Re-learning: It will be foolish to expect people to abandon their toxic values just for the sake of following a rule. In order to effectively eliminate gender-based violence your workplace needs to facilitate active unlearning and re-learning. It may take time to unlearn one’s toxic behaviors but creating such opportunities is crucial for building a safe work environment for all. There are many resources and toolkits to help organizations to improve their employee behavior. Human resource management can contribute by facilitating bi-monthly or yearly workshops to unlearn sexist and toxic behaviors against women and re-learn corporation and allyship. All is needed for companies to be a little bit mindful and empathetic to their female colleagues and spend actively to make the office environment safer instead of only thinking about profit maximization.

Author- Nayeema Nusrat Arora

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