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From the firing line

Written by Shelagh Smith for 16 days of activism

Gender-based violence in the workplace is a reality many women have to deal with on a daily basis. They are subjected to all forms of this violence; oral, physical and mental. And while being undermined or violated, these women are still expected to do the job well without complaint. Or shut up.

Silence, shame, withdrawal and the isolation that follows this ill-will is the result. Research shows that if this violence is ongoing, the victim might suffer symptoms of PTSD, very similar to those experiencing life in a war zone. And that is what gender-based violence is. War. An act of aggressive force over those with less power.

For the immigrant woman who has difficulty in expressing herself in the lingua Franca or who has not been fully accepted or integrated into her workplace, this scenario is a nuclear battlefield. Her vulnerability is bombarded every day while she is trying to advance and negotiate her way through her day. The constant harassment will eat away at her confidence, will test her patience and destroy her trust. It will impact on her sympathetic nervous system and cause a heightened state of anxiety similar to what war veterans experience. This war against women has to stop. It has gone on for far too long. So how do we stop it?

Breaking the silence is a powerful weapon as we have seen through the #MeToo movement. The vocal exposure of acts of violence has served to strengthen the vulnerable and solidify their cause.

Solidarity is another effective force against aggression. This is where co-workers can rally and form rank to help their female co-workers. History has shown that it is human numbers that exact change. Very often someone at the workplace would have noticed the aggressor in action, but the very nature of this war renders witnesses silent. It is this silence, the mobilizing force, that needs to be stopped. Co-workers can advance on the perpetrator with their combined voices exposing the aggression at work as unacceptable and intolerable. For once aggression has been identified, we have no choice but to do something about it.

That is where unions come in. The paying union member needs to have the back-up of her union to lead her through the next steps and assist with charges and legalities. Furthermore, trade unions have the power to put pressure on governments to make perpetrators of gender-based violence at work accountable for their actions. This power should be used. Accountability is made possible through executing laws governing work ethics and behaviour in the workplace. Too often the lax execution of such laws leads to the scenario where the victim of gender-based violence is finally forced to leave her workplace while the perpetrator continues as before. This has to stop.

So if co-workers, trade unions and government take up arms against gender-based violence, together we can break the silence, expose and hold to account the perpetrators so that peace can reign in the workplace anew.

Article was written for the 16 days of activism 2019, Shelagh Smith is a member of the board of W.O.M.E.N in Iceland.