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An Opportunity for South Africa to Address Gender-Based Violence in the Workplace

Gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa is a highly prevalent, complex problem affecting not only the individuals involved but also their children and families. GBV and family violence, which includes intimate partner violence (IPV) and violence against children, are intersecting problems.[1] Women and children who live in poverty and adversity are the most vulnerable, facing multiple contextual factors that both increase their risk of experiencing violence and reinforce their marginalized status.[2],[3] These individuals also face the greatest barriers and constraints to accessing support, and are the most disempowered and disenfranchised members of society. In a novel approach to addressing this problem, the Institute for Security Studies’ Justice and Violence Prevention Programme is engaging the private sector to develop a family violence prevention intervention for the workplace.

Family violence affects women and children’s mental and physical health, and ability to function and participate in society. For working women, it also affects their occupational functioning and is directly linked to increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, job losses, and lost opportunities for career progression.[4] Women are also vulnerable to physical and sexual violence in their workplace. This often stems from harassment or bullying, especially for those women working in low-skilled or menial positions in male-dominated sectors.[5] Such women may be reluctant to report incidents of violence at work due to fear of further victimization, especially when the perpetrator is someone in a position of authority. And, as many women work long hours for little pay, taking time off work to access community resources for support is not an option as it may leave them unable to make ends meet.

There is some evidence that interventions to prevent family violence can be successfully implemented in the workplace.[6],[7] Working women who experience IPV are most likely to confide in their co-workers, and the workplace may be a place where employees can access support and other resources, provided the working conditions are safe and the support is provided in a sensitive, evidence-based manner.[8] Creating and cultivating a supportive environment for employees who experience IPV may improve workplace safety, functionality, and productivity.  The workplace may also be an environment where empowerment of women can be promoted, information disseminated, and employees trained in basic life skills that are known to prevent and reduce violence at home. However, there is a gap in the knowledge around such interventions for low- and middle-income countries, with very few published studies. Furthermore, there are few workplace-based programs that simultaneously address family violence and IPV, with none in South Africa.

The Justice and Violence Prevention Programme (JVPP) at the Institute for Security Studies, in partnership with the South African Medical Research Council and Exeter University, is conducting research to develop a family violence prevention intervention for the workplace. With a specific focus on engaging the private sector, this research is a novel undertaking in South Africa. It aims to inform, contribute to, and strengthen a multi-sectoral response to preventing violence in the country.[9] This project will contribute to building capacity for such a response by equipping a national network of NGOs (the South African Parenting Programme Implementers’ Network) to deliver the family violence prevention program to businesses and worksites across South Africa.  This will create greater access for those women who, because they are employed, are unable to attend violence prevention programs in the community since these often take place during working hours.

The JVPP project uses, as an intervention development site, a small, family-owned, agro-processing enterprise. The project combines human-centered design and oral history methods to elicit a nuanced understanding of the complexities of family violence as experienced by employees who live in the surrounding communities. However, human-centered design appears to lack the rigor of traditional research approaches to designing interventions for complex problems, with the latter being rooted in theory and built on the accumulated science and evidence about what works. These limitations became clear when some of the proposed solutions emerging from the human-centered design process did not conform with what research-based evidence says about effective violence prevention. On the other hand, the value of human-centered design is that it puts the perspective of the intervention recipient at the center of the research, which strengthens the validity and desirability of the intervention program. Realizing the value and the limitations of these different approaches, the JVPP project is currently developing a hybrid model for intervention design, one that makes use of both human-centered design and traditional research methods. This may be the best approach for continuing the intervention design, in the hope that this process will produce a useful model that can be applied to violence prevention research in similar low- and middle-income settings.

Family violence in South Africa is a complex problem that is inextricably intertwined with poverty, inequality, and deprivation, often transmitted across generations. Thus, a long-term, multi-faceted approach is required. Recognizing that violence against women and children are interlinked and co-occurring problems, it is essential that an intervention to effectively prevent family violence has components that address both problems. Moving forward, material from evidence-based positive parenting training programs will be adapted and integrated into the JVPP project, along with components aimed at improving education and awareness on GBV and IPV, activities to promote gender equality and empowerment of women, and training in life skills for healthy communication, non-violent conflict resolution, and stress management. Project managers will also engage business owners, managers, and employees in a co-creation process to design a workplace GBV policy, protocol, and standard operating procedure, as well as engage with local, community-based sources for referral.

Lastly, JVPP project managers have identified future opportunities, both local and national, whereby GBV intervention can be scaled up by introducing it all along the business supply chain, thereby developing a model for how the private sector can drive violence prevention in South Africa.

Ms. Thandi van Heyningen is a Senior Research Consultant in The Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa. ISS is a member organization of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding. 

Photo credit: Protesters hold banners at a protest to remember women and children who were raped and killed in South Africa. Photos captured in March 2019 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Credit: Bohemian Photography/Shutterstock. Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/port-elizabeth-south-africa-march-2019-1760049902.

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About the Author

Thandi van Heyningen

Senior Research Consultant, The Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, Institute for Security Studies, South Africa
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