Tackling gender-based violence at work, in transit, and online

May 22, 2019
NYU Stern BHR

Part of a series of articles on Solutions for Gender Equality

Women worldwide are at risk of gender-based violence, one of the most visceral and unaddressed manifestations of gender inequality.

In South Asia’s thriving garment industry, women face many forms of violence on the shop floor. Although national governments welcome multi-national companies that employ women, laws passed by these same governments fail to protect women from sexual exploitation on the job, according to Rakhi Sehgal, an IDRC-supported labour researcher and activist based in India. She takes her own country’s government as an example, saying that it needs prodding to implement the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013.

Gender-based violence is a focus for many IDRC-supported researchers, who use action-research and advocacy to improve women’s health, access to justice, and economic choices. To tackle this form of violence, their solutions must address the structural barriers that perpetuate it, including discriminatory laws, practices, and social norms.

Sehgal, who spoke at an IDRC-sponsored event on March 8, 2019 in Ottawa, Canada, explained that a good starting point for creating safer workplaces is changing the cultures that tolerate harassment. Speaking of one successful approach used in a garment factory, she said “We need to provide basic conditions for safe and non-hostile working environments by making all sexually-laced comments, jokes, innuendos, and double-meaning words immediately punishable at all levels, from recruiters to coworkers, to top management.”

Gender-based violence in the #MeToo era

Thanks to social media, women of relative privilege working in the global entertainment industry started a movement to denounce sexual violence and harassment using the Twitter hashtag #MeToo. But not all women can benefit from this initiative.

“The women that we work with in the industrial and agricultural sectors don’t have that kind of access,” said Sehgal. “Many of these women are of rural origin, barely educated, and extremely vulnerable. They’re underpaid and overworked, actively prevented from unionizing, and when they try to make a complaint, it’s mostly regarded as false and they are treated as liars.”

Rakhi Sehgal
IDRC/Greg Teckles

When women start perceiving themselves as rights-bearing citizens and rights-bearing persons, it really has an impact on how we deal with violence across various spaces.

- Rakhi sehgal, labour researcher and activist

Sehgal is part of an IDRC-supported research consortium that gathers evidence of workplace harassment and gender violence at garment factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, and Indonesia, and tests approaches to end it. Her recommendations urge the same South Asian governments that welcome companies as investors to provide safe housing, well-lit streets, and functioning complaint committees to curtail gender violence.

Local complaints committees operating outside the workplace are mandated in India’s national law. “The government really needs to step up and increase the formation of these committees at the district levels and ensure their proper functioning and monitoring,” said Sehgal.

“When women start perceiving themselves as rights-bearing citizens and rights-bearing persons, it really has an impact on how they deal with violence across various spaces. Our recommendation is that local governments should partner with local industry and community-based organizations and really organize training … to educate on sexual harassment laws and grievance procedures.” 

Getting to school or work in peace

In a 2016 poll, women living in developing countries reported being harassed or being victims of violence in public spaces at rates much higher than in other parts of the world. In India, reported rates sit at 79%; in Thailand, they are at 86%; and in Brazil, 89% of women surveyed said they feel unsafe and fearful on the streets and while using transit.

The Information Technology University of the Punjab and Washington’s Urban Institute created a mobile app called ReCAPP to survey men and women in Lahore, Pakistan, about their perception of safety while using the city’s massive bus transit system.

Ammar Malik
IDRC/Greg Teckles

The last mile, which is when you step out of your doorstep to get to the mass transit, that's the biggest problem in urban transport safety for women

- Ammar Malik, Director of research at evidence for policy design, harvard kennedy school of government

ReCAPP was born out of research supported by the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women program to address unsafe transport as an important factor preventing women from going to school or accepting job opportunities. The app was a first step in a successful bid to get policymakers in Pakistan to implement local laws that allow women to complain about harassment in public spaces.

“What women did in those surveys was basically record their perception of safety in a public space. They would observe things like, ‘I’m in a dark alley, somebody might be following me,’ or ‘There’s this vendor standing on the side,’” said Ammar Malik, now director of research at Evidence for Policy Design at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He was part of the Urban Institute’s team in 2017, when data from ReCAPP allowed researchers to identify the factors that led women to experience far more threatening and disruptive transit journeys than men.

Poor lighting, local bus stops that were too far from the safety of a transit hub, and being forced to stand in crowded lines to board a bus were some of the dangers women reported via the app, said Malik at IDRC’s International Women’s Day panel on March 8. Traversing the “last mile” — the distance between a woman’s doorstep and mass transit — is the biggest problem, he said. After leaving the safety of a bus or a well-lit transit hub, women felt more vulnerable. In 2018, Malik captured these results in a poster.

Women also proposed solutions, noted Malik. “They said, ‘We want patrolling, we want enforcement, somebody to watch the men as we go about our daily business.’”

Training for transit drivers and conductors also emerged as a policy measure that government officials were willing to implement. “What we found in our data was that drivers could be perpetrators,” said Malik. In addition, displaying posters or ads in buses helped transit authorities inform all men that touching and verbal harassment are crimes.

Clicking to a safer feminist future

For many women, the promise of the Internet as a place for freedom of expression has failed because threats aimed at silencing them abound.

Joana Varon, founding director and policy strategist at Coding Rights, Brazil, and the third panelist at the Ottawa event said, “If you consider people of a certain class or race, non-binary gender people, or non-hetero expressions of sexuality, these people are the ones that are most targeted online.”

Heterosexual women or queer people whose work has high public visibility are often caught between the power that the Internet gives them and the threats that it brings. Journalists, politicians, artists, activists, and gamers are among those most targeted with hateful comments or physical threats of violence, Varon said. “There is a continuum between online and offline interactions,” she added, “because it’s impossible to separate the consequences of actions that occur in digital environments and the offline world.”

Coding Rights is part of a global research network supported by IDRC to protect privacy in developing countries and to use technology as a means of promoting human rights. “We use creativity to address issues that are sensitive and that sometimes need healing deconstruction processes and information sharing.”

Joana Varon
IDRC/Greg Teckles

Historical structural challenges in dealing with gender-based violence are transposed to the online, to the digital environments

- joana varon, founding director and policy strategist at coding rights

Safer Sisters, for example, is a series of GIF images developed by Coding Rights. Each loop offers suggestions to women to improve digital security, including tips for storing or creating passwords and responding to online haters.

Whether focused on technology, labour rights, or mobility, research has an important role to play in understanding the real experiences of gender-based violence and for testing initiatives that engage men, women, and communities to change this reality. Ultimately, the goal is for a non-male-dominated future where women’s daily lives are less compromised by the kinds of violence and harassment that are so pervasive today.

Rakhi Sehgal, Ammar Malik, and Joana Varon were panelists in the “Solutions for Gender Equality” speaker series. They spoke at the panel discussion “At work, in transit, online: Solutions to address gender-based violence” on March 8, 2019 in Ottawa, Canada. Watch the event recording on YouTube. The speaker series builds a narrative of IDRC’s efforts to support gender equality globally leading up to Women Deliver 2019, an international conference on gender equality in Vancouver, from June 3–6, 2019.