Equality is the foundation for the sustainable development of societies. To achieve it, the unequal gender power balance has to be addressed. The overarching global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 sets out how this unequal power balance needs to be systematically and comprehensively tackled to advance gender equality and empower women.
One of the key targets of the gender equality SDG is the elimination of violence against women and girls (VAWG). VAWG includes intimate partner violence, family violence, and violence in schools, workplaces and public spaces. It is widely acknowledged as a fundamental human rights violation that is fuelled by an unequal gender power balance.
Another key SDG gender equality target is ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. The achievement of this target is measured by the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and local government, as well the proportion of women in managerial positions.
Violence is an overlooked barrier to women’s economic participation
There is a wide body of literature on how unequal gender power dynamics and explicit discriminatory practices prevent women from accessing higher managerial positions within institutions, businesses in particular. Yet, the impact of violence has often been overlooked as a potential barrier to participation and opportunity for women in economic life.
This is changing. Within the last year, #MeToo movement has turned a spotlight on the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and sexual violence in sectors such as entertainment, IT and global finance that has explicitly limited women’s opportunities and promotion to the higher echelons of decision-making. However, the ripple effects of intimate partner violence on women’s participation in the business world has received less attention. Deepening understanding of this barrier, and the means to adequately address it, is an important step in achieving gender equality.
Researching the impact of violence
NUI Galway, in partnership the International Center for Research on Women and Ipsos MORI, has carried out a study on the economic and social impacts of violence against women and girls, which highlights the challenges VAWG creates for employment mobility and attainment of managerial positions. The study, which received funding from the UK Department for International Development, surveyed approximately 100 businesses in key economic sectors in the main industrial cities in Ghana, Pakistan and South Sudan. Female employees surveyed included 391 women in Ghana, 268 in Pakistan and 323 in South Sudan.
Across all three countries, a significant proportion of women have experienced intimate partner violence by a current or former partner in the previous 12 months – 27% in Ghana, 14% in Pakistan and 35% in South Sudan. Women were asked about the consequences of intimate partner violence on their productivity in terms of absenteeism (missing work), tardiness (being late) and presenteeism (being less productive). A significant proportion of female employees were absent, late and less productive as a result of intimate partner violence. In Ghana and South Sudan, the proportions were particularly high, with more than half of women who were subjected to intimate partner violence experiencing these impacts.
Women were asked how many working days they lost in the previous 12 months due to absenteeism, tardiness or presenteeism due to intimate partner violence. The average was equivalent to half a working month: 14 days in Ghana, 10 days in South Sudan and 17 days in Pakistan.
Women experiencing intimate partner violence lose half a working month per year as a consequence
An obstacle to advancement
In addition to the direct economic costs of these lost working days, these impacts have serious consequences for women’s advancement potential. For example, a US-based study found that women were less likely to work full-time in the year after an episode of intimate partner violence, impacting on their ability to take up opportunities of training or upgrading skills, limiting their promotion opportunities6 .
Failure to understand the impact of violence in the private sphere on women’s public and economic lives may lead employers to view women’s lost days as evidence of a poor work ethic, insufficient commitment to the organisation, or lack of ability. Women burdened by violence may thus be less likely to be perceived as candidates for advancement to managerial positions. These are the dynamics by which violence by intimate partners can obstruct the achievement of the gender equality target of the SDGs.
The costs of violence against women in terms of their working lives and potential to advance must be recognised. Improving knowledge among businesses about VAWG is an important step. Identifying the role of businesses and other organisations in addressing intimate partner violence, through for instance workplace prevention programmes and interventions, is also critical. Such action needs to be taken to achieve the equality of opportunity necessary for women’s leadership in economic life.