Although not all trade unions have been in the forefront of the campaign for women’s rights, some have an excellent record, others are catching up fast. UNISON is, in our view, amongst the very best, and we are pleased to reproduce some information from their pamphlet Raise the Roof on Domestic Abuse.
The fact is that one in four of our female colleagues is affected by domestic violence at some time in their lives and every week at least one woman in Britain is killed by her violent partner. Domestic violence accounts for 25% of all reported crime and research suggests that only a small proportion of violent attacks are ever reported to the police.
Domestic violence affects job performance and thus job prospects and security; it threatens the health and safety of those who suffer and sometimes even their lives. Increasingly employers are recognising that they have a responsibility for the well-being of their employees and are negotiating workplace agreements to support and assist employees suffering domestic abuse. As trade unionists we have to focus our attention on negotiating good workplace policies and practices and raise awareness of the issues among our members and full-time officials.
Domestic violence is abusive or violent behaviour between partners or ex-partners. The violence is often physical or sexual, its visible effects ranging from bruising to permanent injury, and it may even cause death. Sometimes it is emotional, mental and verbal: threats, belittlement, isolation and control of money and activities. Less visible but equally damaging effects include diminished self-esteem, lack of concentration, fear, guilt, insomnia, depression, agoraphobia and difficulty in forming or maintaining trusting or intimate relationships.
Domestic violence knows no national borders and it cuts across all social, economic, racial and religious boundaries. There is no typical male perpetrator or typical female "victim". Violence in the home has its roots in inequality, control and power. Tackling domestic violence requires a raft of social changes including improvements in women’s economic status: pay, job security and benefits; improved public housing and changes in housing policy; changing social attitudes including work in schools on strategies to handle conflict; changing attitudes and practice of the police and criminal justice system; greater consistency and integration of services and multi-agency support.
There are many myths and prejudices surrounding domestic violence which make abused women fearful of speaking out and which lead to negative responses when they do seek help. Outsiders may not understand why a woman does not simply leave or, having left, why she sometimes returns, perhaps more than once. It is important to understand that leaving an abusive relationship is not a single act but a process. Women stay for many reasons ranging from love to terror, through to crude economics. Leaving is an act requiring strength and resourcefulness that may have been eroded by fear and despair. A woman may hope that her partner will change and that the family can stay together. A violent partner may exhibit periods of loving behaviour and show genuine remorse.
Support services for women fleeing domestic violence vary widely around the country. Difficulties with housing and money, as well as a range of emotional pressures, may force a woman to return to an abusive partner, leaving again might not seem to be an option.
Language may be an obstacle to women’s access to information and services; a woman may depend on school-age children or relatives to interpret for her, which may not be possible in this context. Women may feel they are betraying their black partner to authorities who they believe to be racist. Disabled women may be abused by their principal carer. They may fear institutionalisation and be even more dependent on remaining in the family home. The fear that their children could be taken away may also be present. Lesbians experience violence from male ex-partners or within their current relationship may receive little sympathy.
Women experiencing domestic violence must know that they are not alone. Many others have been through what they are experiencing and there are places to go for help. These must include their union. This is where you come in - get active.
Women’s Aid Federations of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are umbrella groups of refuges for women and children escaping domestic violence. They provide help lines, information, training and resources and monitor policy and practice. They campaign for better legal rights and support and protection for women experiencing violence.
If a woman talks to someone from the union, it may be the first time she has ever spoken about the abuse she and her children are experiencing. It is vital that the person she talks to reacts sensitively. The most important thing is information. Branches should consider appointing a woman branch officer as the named contact for members
seeking advice or information on violence in the home. Such an appointment should be widely advertised so that any woman wanting to get in touch knows who to approach directly, without having to ask other stewards or branch officials. Anyone supporting a woman suffering from abuse should be aware of the need for:
A number of union branches have already negotiated agreements on handling the issue of domestic violence and its effects within the workplace. There are a number of reasons why employers should agree to establishing such a policy. Building up a team of trained and experienced staff costs money - good support will reduce the cost that occurs when staff leave. The cost of replacing an employee include: recruitment advertising, possible cost of temporary cover, training new recruits, management time for new recruits Issues to address in negotiating a policy with the employer. Confidential and sympathetic response by managers and colleagues: this is crucial if women who are experiencing domestic violence are to come forward for help and support.
Awareness training for all staff: this is important if managers and colleagues are to understand why there is a need for a workplace policy and know how to behave and help in the situation.
Extended special or compassionate leave: women who are experiencing domestic abuse will need time off to visit solicitors, arrange re-housing and to get advice and support from agencies.
Advanced pay: money may be tight and advances in pay may help in the short term.
Relocation: there may be requests to be redeployed or relocated for many reasons.
Changes in working hours or other temporary measures to working time may help.
Practical help such as having a list of appropriate agencies: the employer should keep telephone numbers of appropriate agencies such as housing and benefit agencies, women’s aid etc.
A leaflet was prepared and passed to all our affiliated branches, Women’s Aid, and local colleagues in Unison, for comment. The following year we sent it to virtually every employer in Chelmsford.
We promoted our campaign in the local press and our affiliates have also been asked to raise the issue within their branches, regional committees and annual conferences.
Perhaps you could assist. If you would like a copy of our leaflet, please send a stamped addressed envelope to M. Wallace 28 Rossendale, Chelmsford CM1 2UA.
For information on Equal Opportunities in the Workplace, Lesbian and Gay Rights and Violence in the Workplace, please look at our Equal Opportunities page.
For information on Women’s Health go to our Health and Safety page.
For a list of TUC of pamphlets that are of particular interest to women, please spend a few minutes at our TUC Publications Page.
To view a range of women’s sites please look at our Women In Focus page.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE PLEASE GO TO OUR QUIZ SECTION.