Abuse does not only happen behind closed doors. It’s time to shine a light on how vulnerable people can be mistreated and what we can do about it.
Our blue planet is plagued by spiralling levels of abuse, with women and children statistically first in the firing line. That’s why the annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign, from 25 November to 10 December, was launched in 1991. It is all about raising awareness and focusing our efforts on putting a stop to violence.
An uneven power dynamic lies at the root of abuse: someone who is stronger (physically, financially, socially, etc.) misuses their power over another. Abuse is not always as obvious as a punch and it doesn’t only happen at home. It can be subtle and plague the workplace too. In fact, according to the International Labour Organization, ‘more than one in five people … have experienced violence and harassment at work’. This could be physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Here’s how to start ‘being’ the change.
Don’t play it down
Occasional tension between colleagues and doing things we might not enjoy (like drafting a report) are normal. But bullying, physical harm, sexual harassment, or emotional abuse is never acceptable. If workplace interactions leave you feeling afraid, worthless and powerless, do not dismiss it.
A problem shared is a problem halved. Often, talking a situation through with someone supportive helps put things in perspective, to help you find a solution. If you can’t approach a manager or your human resources department, consider a trustworthy colleague, friend or family member, or even a counsellor. Contact the employee health and wellness programme for free counselling. It’s only when we shine a light on darkness, that we can deal with what lies within.
Sometimes, without realising, we ourselves may be abusive. Being firm is often needed and isn’t abuse, even if it upsets someone (for example, constructively correcting a staff member’s report). The key lies in your intentions. Ask yourself: am I trying to educate, help and elevate, or am I doing this to flex my power? ‘Talking down’ to a colleague or taking advantage of a junior person is degrading. Use your power wisely.
Lean on me
What if you want to help a suspected or known victim? Firstly, unless they’re incapable of speaking for themselves (e.g. a child or a person who is mentally challenged) or are in immediate danger, avoid reporting abuse without their consent. Instead, create a safe space for them to reach out by gently enquiring and making it clear that you’re available if they want to talk confidentially, but respect their boundaries if they’d rather not. Always behave with integrity – you can’t be the office gossip and then expect people to trust you. If they do open up, don’t judge, blame or shame the person. Listen, support and help them take action if that’s what they choose to do.
While the 16 Days of Activism campaign focuses on women and children for the simple reason that they’re at greater risk, abuse against anyone is unacceptable and against the law. We need to stand together with empathy in our hearts and action in our hands to put a stop to it. Remember, it starts with you!