Employers have a role in ending domestic violence

Rachel Ball and Phil Lynch
TheDRUMopinion

A society free from domestic and family violence is possible, but it will take effort from the whole community to achieve.

First, we need to reject the myth that family violence is a private problem that only exists within the four walls of the home.

Employers, service providers and government bodies can all make it easier – or more difficult – for a woman to access support or leave a violent relationship. If they make it harder, they become part of the problem.

With the Federal Government currently reviewing and reforming Australia’s national anti-discrimination laws, Australia has an opportunity to strengthen the law and prohibit discrimination against women who are victims of domestic violence.

As the UN’s independent expert on violence against women reiterated during a recent visit to Australia, extending anti-discrimination laws would help eliminate the discrimination that compounds the harm incurred as a consequence of domestic violence. It would also acknowledge our shared responsibility to facilitate support in times of crises.

While such laws would not, of course, be a panacea to the scourge of violence against women, they would play an important role in reducing the toxic effects of violence on women, children, and our community as a whole. They would also assist in creating pathways out of violence through economic independence and access to accommodation.

Anti-discrimination laws are not aimed at preventing or addressing the violence itself. To do that we need comprehensive, adequately funded prevention programs. We need to ensure that we have services to respond to crises and improve the safety of victims. And we need to increase the accountability of perpetrators.

However, anti-discrimination law can be an important piece of the puzzle because it increases our capacity to recognise and stamp out the discrimination that surrounds and entrenches violence and compounds the difficulties faced by victims.

Family violence can have a significant impact in the workplace. It can result in absenteeism due to court appearances or doctor’s appointments. Performance may be adversely affected due to sleep deprivation and stress. Violent partners or ex-partners may follow employees to the workplace and cause a disturbance, or harass them over the phone or email.

If a victim loses her job as a result of these impacts of violence, she may also lose the economic independence, social networks and self-confidence that could help her escape the violent relationship.

On the other hand, if an employer offers flexibility around, for example, personal leave or work schedules, this can be an enormous help to victims. Small things, like having another worker temporarily answer the victim’s phone if she is being harassed, make a big difference.

Of course, an employer cannot respond appropriately if they don’t know that the violence is taking place. But it is the fear of discriminatory treatment that often deters victims and survivors from disclosing their situations to employers in the first place.

Making such discrimination unlawful would provide a safety net to women who would like to seek help, but are concerned that they might be placing their jobs at risk if they do.

Domestic and family violence is also a key cause of homelessness for women and their children. Access to safe and secure housing is integral to escaping violent situations. So it is extremely harmful when victims are denied access to public or private housing simply because they are known to have an abusive partner.

There’s also an economic case for eliminating discrimination against victims of domestic and family violence. By acting to support victims, employers can save on costs associated with absenteeism, lost productivity and staff turnover.

According to Access Economics, violence against women costs the Australian community $8.1 billion per annum. A substantial proportion of this is borne by employers in the form of decreased productivity, sick pay and staff turnover.

Family violence has reached crisis levels in Australia. Approximately 1.2 million Australian women have experienced violence at the hands of a current or former partner. Family violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44. We need all the tools we can get to combat this problem.

It is all of our responsibility to create an environment that assists, rather than impedes, victims and survivors of domestic and family violence. That goes for governments, employers, service providers and the community.

If we fail to do this and act as though domestic violence belongs behind closed doors, we create an environment where it is allowed to fester unimpeded.

The Government’s anti-discrimination law reform agenda provides a perfect chance to ensure that we all pitch in to address one of the most widespread and significant human rights violations in Australia. This is an opportunity for all of us to contribute to a safer, fairer Australia.

Rachel Ball and

Phil Lynch work with the Human Rights Law Centre.

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