In a EduWeb webinar in February 2021, Paula Quinsee, Chief Empowerment Officer at Ati2ud and gender-based violence advocate brought EAPASA members invaluable, thought-provoking insights along with guidelines for the eradication of gender-based violence in South Africa – and even broader than this, abuse in general.
Physical abuse is not just a story in the tabloids or something that is “happening over there”. It is taking place every day, close by, in our homes and communities. The Covid-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the increase of abuse and acts of grievous bodily harm (GVB).
For many people, the pandemic has caused their reality to change. Abuse is spilling over from their personal space into the work environment, particularly because more individuals work from home. People can no longer escape their home to go to work as a safe place, because their home and place of work have become integrated. Conversely, people cannot escape a tough day at the office to go home – home and work life are all intertwined.
South Africans are going through extremely stressful times, which have contributed to mental health issues. Statistics reveal:
- 55% suffer from anxiety and panic
- 46% are under financial stress and pressure
- 40% suffer from depression
- 30% are experiencing poor family relations
- 12% of people have had feelings of suicide
- 6% of people partake in substance abuse
South African statistics on abuse reveal:
- South Africa is reported as having the highest rape statistics in the world
- 1 in 9 women report a sexual offence
- Over 1146 sexual offences are committed daily
- Research claims that 1 in 4 men in South Africa have admitted to committing rape
- Call centres report receiving 500 – 1000 calls a day
How do we start to change this narrative and landscape that we live in?
Abnormal levels of stress have contributed to environments becoming more toxic. Beyond indulging in typical coping mechanisms such as the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, we are starting to see people turn to other coping mechanisms to alleviate stresses and loneliness including the stresses of work-life integration. This has been exacerbated by the alcohol and tobacco bans over lockdown. There has been an impact on women in particular, with a lot of research to back up that women have been taking on the major share of domestic and parenting responsibilities, while having to work from home. In working from home, not only have individuals had to handle the distractions and responsibilities around them in their home work environment, they have had to handle additional stresses such as digital fatigue that come with working remotely.
GBV costs South Africa between R28.4 billion – R R42.4 billion per annum or between 0.9% – 1.3% of the country’s GDP per annum. (A statistic gathered in 2014 and currently underread.)
Supporting mental health in an everyday necessity – not a luxury
We are all human and not invincible. It is not possible to continue burning the candle at both ends and survive. Part of the issue of supporting good mental health hangs on answering the question: “How do we bring the human back?”
Supporting mental health in the workplace takes more than having ad hoc health awareness days or handing out informative leaflets. Holistic support is an everyday necessity, because if employees are not mentally healthy, they are not able to function and operate effectively – both in their personal lives or professionally.
It’s okay to not be okay
Toxic environments are very real for many employees. It’s important for management to convey that it is okay to not be okay and to need to ask for help – not just in regard to mental health issues but about any form of abusive environment that an employee may find themselves in. We need to start removing the stigmas that are attached to gender-based violence and abusive behaviours whether it be unhealthy behaviour towards self or in a partner-relationship or within the family dynamic. We need to talk about mental health in conversations every day and not just when an incident crops up – where it is dealt with in a hushed tone behind closed doors. People need to be around the conversation of abuse until they feel comfortable talking about their mental health and any possible abuse they may be experiencing.
It starts with each of us “putting on our own mask first”
From an individual point of view: we must each be aware and take ownership of our own condition – one where we may find ourselves in a negative space mentally or emotionally, or stuck in an environment that is unhealthy, or where there is abuse. Only when we are able to acknowledge our own reality can it lead to our speaking up and asking others for help.
Pay attention to the red flags
From a leadership point of view (and made more difficult by the digital environment): leaders need to determine how to recognise red flag behaviours in their employees. For example, if we see a shift in behaviour or a negative change in work delivery from an employee, this may be a red flag signalling a mental health issue.
We also need to pay attention to our own red flags. In addition to the usual coping mechanisms, emotional snacking as a way to manage stress can be a red flag – especially while working at home with easy access to the fridge. Other red flags to take note of: what are some of things you may have given up on doing in terms of healthy activities or self-care during lockdown? Is this a product of a mental health issue or because the activity is curtailed by the pandemic? These are just some of the things we should be aware of as potential red flags and the only way they will come to light is through regular open communication and team conversations within a perceived “safe space”.
Take away the stigmas
Beyond sexual or physical abuse, there are other forms of abuse such as financial, verbal, mental and emotional abuse. It is essential to help get rid of the stigmas around all forms of abuse:
- Ditch the guilt
It is important to ditch any guilt attached to the notion that one may have brought abuse upon oneself – or that one must have done something wrong. When sharing, it is important to assure an abused person that what they are feeling is a typical reaction, but that they are not to blame and that they should stop torturing themselves. Here is a useful acronym to encourage the ditching of the sense of guilt that will put the brakes on an individual seeking help or recovering from being abused:
I irrational thinking and
L let go of
T torturing yourself.
- Give up the feeling of shame
Shame and a fear of rejection by family or that it will affect their job can hold an employee back from stepping up to seek help to overcome abuse. Talk to employees about the advantages of letting go of any feeling of shame. Encourage them to talk by regularly bringing up abuse as a topic and create a safe space for open discussion. By talking about it, the experience of shame, guilt and stigma is minimised.
H holding on.
A Acknowledge it and
M minimise the
- Accept that failure is an event – not a person
The fact that an abused person feels like a failure (as a person, or in their relationship, or as an employee who did not create boundaries or speak out), may stop someone from speaking out about being abused. It is important to convey that failure is an event, not the person themselves. In fact, the system and other people have failed them by not preventing the abuse or standing by them to support them.
- Work through fear of negative consequences
Fear of backlash or negative consequences may stop individuals from speaking up about being abused. It is important to help the individual to break down the facts of their situation and identify the attached emotions. Then the person can work through the facts, process their emotions, work through the elements of the situation that are in their control and decide on positive actions through which they can take charge of their own reality. When they do take action and make a move in the right direction, what does the person want that reality to be?
As a result, what are the new emotions they are experiencing? Out of this knowledge, what are the next steps the person can take in the right direction, that will take them from where they are to where they want to be?
We need to take a holistic approach
We need to look at a holistic approach and work as a collective by looking at the way in which we raise our girl children and our boy children and the way we conduct ourselves as primary role models in terms of what is appropriate behaviour in our homes. Just as parents create the tone, culture and values in a home, so leaders create the tone, cultures and values in the workplace so that employees thrive.
We need to look at how we address the issues of abuse in the workplace, and not just sexual harassment or misconduct. We need to bring gender-based violence into these discussions, because today our homes are also our places of work. And, we need to address these issues at a government level with systems, support structures and budget that is allocated to addressing and alleviating GVB at a community level, a country level, and a global level. Like Covid-19, abuse is a global pandemic, and we need to be combining resources and leveraging off one another’s collective knowledge and structures. We have been talking about it for far too long. We cannot wait for 16 Days of Activism each year to talk about it – it must become an everyday topic.
We need to remove the labels
We need to remove labels like “gender-based violence”. It is not just about gender or about violence. It is about abuse in any shape or form. It happens to males and females. It happens to children in the form of child abuse. It happens to people in terms of human trafficking and across the
We need to start talking to perpetrators as well as victims
Up until now, a lot of campaigns that have been run globally and locally have been aimed at victims and what can do to get help etc. But if we did not have perpetrators, we would not have victims. We need to create campaigns that are aimed at perpetrators and put systems in place that address perpetrators, too – aimed at changing their behaviour so that they become part of the solution to eradicating abuse or GVB.
We can no longer send perpetrators off to anger management classes – they need to go to therapy or various forms of rehabilitation. We need to start making them aware of what the repercussions are for perpetrators as well as what the rights are for victims – and what support structures are in place for both victims and perpetrators to start changing the narrative together. In including perpetrators in the narrative, we need to start making it safe for them to speak up and say, “I have been abusive and I need help”.
We need a support structure for employees in the home
It is very evident, with more people working at home and thus in a confined space, that there has been a rise in GVB statistics. In France there was a hotel group who opened their doors in 2020 to create a safe space for victims who found themselves stuck in an abusive environment. We need to be aware of abuse in the home from a business perspective, in terms of the policies and procedures our organisations are currently putting in place to cover the remote workforce. Whether your employees are working full-time from home or at the office, or you are taking a blended approach, how are you building appropriate procedures and policies into your structures to cover abuse and GVB?
Examples of healthy behaviour:
We need to start having conversations at home as to what constitutes healthy behaviour – and we need to model healthy behaviour, to walk the talk at an individual level and then at a collective level.
Healthy behaviours being experienced at home include:
- Ability to resolve conflict
- Free to speak openly
- Nurturing and caring relationships with children and family
- Healthy family dynamics and support structure
- Taking an active stand against abuse
We need to consider how to put down boundaries and start calling out unacceptable behaviour in our homes and in our communities, whether that is through support structures such as church groups, therapy groups, or Lifeline etc – or when it comes to medical support, therapists and any frontline group.
Unhealthy behaviours being experienced at home include:
- Any form of abuse
- Continually feeling anxious, fearful, or afraid of your partner/home environment
- Being controlled, manipulated or broken down
- The use of negative coping mechanisms – substance abuse, addiction etc
- Getting stuck in the “blame game”, stonewalling or being shut down by your partner
- Lack of communication, unresolved issues
We need a support structure for employees in the workplace
We need to start having the same conversations in the workplace. Asking exactly what unhealthy behaviour is and incorporating into the conversation that abuse is not just about sexual harassment or misconduct. It is more than that. We need to take a holistic approach and build this into our onboarding processes and into organisational culture and wellness programmes. This should also be reflected in policies and protocols that are being revamped to cover a work-from-home or blended workplace approach.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act stipulates that employers should provide a safe work environment for employees. If your workers are working from home because you as an employee are enforcing a work from home policy due to Covid-19, where does the role and responsibility lie in terms of a safe work environment? Is it with you the employer or is it with the employee who has a toxic home situation? Where the responsibility lies is a very grey area right now, and not many employers are yet addressing this issue even though certain employees are already experiencing abuse or will be down the line.
Healthy behaviours being experienced while at work include:
- A physically and emotionally safe work environment
- Access to resources – for example employee wellness programmes
- Supportive environment – of family roles and responsibilities
- Opportunities for growth
- A ‘speak up’ culture where employees are able to address issues and concerns and the are addressed
- Mental health and wellbeing are included in business strategies and priorities
- An active stance against abuse is taken
It is essential to call people out, hold them accountable and ensure they are aware of the repercussions for any unhealthy behaviours. Examples of unhealthy behaviour while in the workplace include:
- Sexual harassment and misconduct
- Negative coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and addictions
- Sexual innuendo and comments
- A ‘shut up’ culture where employees are not able to speak up for fear of intimidation or losing their jobs
- Mental health and wellness as a ‘tick-box’ exercise. For example, annual wellness days.
- Toxic corporate culture
- Lack of communication, unresolved issues
- Ignoring abuse and looking the other way
We need to provide internal support structures and share information on a range of external support structures with employees, as well as providing the assurance that they will not have a target on their back if they step up to get help. Employees must be made aware that they will be fully supported. It is their human right to get support and we as a family, business or nation stand by them to get help.
- Support LifeLine 0861 322 322
- SADAG 0800 567 567
- Gender-Based Violence Command Centre 0800 428 428|🟉120🟉7867# from any cell
- Persons with Disabilities SMS “help” to 31531
- Women Abuse Helpline 0800 150 150
- Childline 0800 555 555
- SAPS Crime Stop 0860 10111 | SMS Crime Line 32211
- Suicide Helpline 0800 567 567
Enable employees to be BRAVE in declaring that they need help – as a perpetrator or as a victim.
Through Breaking Repetitive Actions, Violence will End
Pooling resources to eradicate GBV
Can you imagine what we could achieve if, on a global level, we pooled our resources and skills to eradicate GBV just as we are already pooling our resources to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic? It would be powerful to pool our resources on a national level, like LifeLine and SADAG etc, instead of working in silos. It would be powerful to work together as Corporates where we pool resources to take an industry stand and a sector stand to change the GBV pandemic, especially for our children going forward.
Teach people in our organisations, who do not have privacy at home, the global signal for help if they are not able to speak out
Conclusion: Together we need to be brave
Let us take a strong stand as organisations, so that from a business level and at community level and as a nation that if we work together and work smart (we do not need to work harder – we have many structures already in place) and leverage off one another, we can eradicate abuse – not just gender-based violence.
Ms Paula Quinsee
Chief Empowerment Officer
Paula Quinsee: Relationship Expert and passionate advocate for creating healthy relationships at home, in the workplace, and against GBV, to co-create a more human connected world and positively impact people’s lives. Paula is also an international speaker and author of Embracing Conflict and Embracing No.