Domestic violence: how to help without doing harm

Domestic violence is the abuse of power over one person by another. Employers can use their power to support people in need of help, says Anne Payne.

Every minute in the UK, the police receive a call from the public for assistance for domestic violence, with two women killed by their partner or a former partner every week. Even so, the vast majority of domestic violence incidents go unreported with a staggering one in four women and one in six men affected by domestic violence during their adult lives.
 
The sheer scale of the problem is such that an organisation employing just 1,000 people will have a couple of hundred employees affected at some point in their lives and a few dozen living with domestic violence at the current time. Add to that the fact that over half of the victims of domestic violence will call in sick at least three times a month and it’s no wonder that the problem is estimated to cost the UK economy well over £1.9bn a year in lost wages, productivity, absence and long term illness.
 
Indeed, research shows that domestic violence is surprisingly prevalent, if hidden, at work with 75 per cent of victims subjected to abusive calls, emails or texts during the working day.
 
Good on the Department of Health then for joining forces with the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence (CAADV) to launch a pledge last month for any organisation wanting to help and support staff facing domestic violence to sign. Organisations ranging from British Airways to HMRC have already signed up and the hope is that by signing the pledge and promising to help and provide appropriate support for any victims who come forward, employers can help to take away some of the stigma associated with domestic violence and provide a safe and sensitive response to those brave enough to seek help. Not to mention reduce the £1,220,247,000 cost to the NHS of treating the physical health of the victims of domestic violence, including hospital, GP, ambulance and prescriptions.
 
Either way, it’s an incredibly brave thing for someone to admit to their employer that they’re being beaten or worse at home and that, yes, it probably is affecting their performance at work. By allowing victims to come forward and creating a safe place for them to admit they need help employers have an incredibly important role to play. Domestic violence is the abuse of power over one person by another. That employers can use their power to support people in need of help is a wonderful thing. On a practical level employers can allow people to do safety planning with the police during working hours, something that simply wouldn’t be possible outside of work, or adjust their hours or location to avoid stalking. On a culture level, by signing the pledge we can all stop pretending the problem doesn’t exist. It does and if you work in an organisation employing more than ten people the chances are one of them will be affected by domestic violence at some point, if they aren’t already.
 
At the same time, employers need to be careful not to educate their workforce so much that they can recognise when someone is affected but so little that they put victims at risk by offering inappropriate advice, such as "why don’t you just leave them" when to leave without first putting an appropriate safety plan in place could endanger their life.
 
The guidelines for employers and employees created in association with the pledge stress the importance of directing victims towards specialist advice from trained advisors who can assess the victim’s risk and offer confidential advice. As one such advisor, the complexity of each individual case never ceases to amaze me.


Aside from the emotional ties that often remain between a victim and their partner or the financial constraints that might be limiting their ability to leave and start a new home, things can get incredibly complicated when children are involved. Victims want and need to understand what rights of access they or an abusive partner will have once a split is initiated. Not least because various studies of the children of abused parents have found a significant proportion of the children ordered by the courts to have contact with an estranged parent have been abused, physically assaulted, involved in abduction attempts or neglected during contact visits.
 
All of which means that in addition to encouraging employers to sign the pledge, employees who want to "help" a colleague suffering domestic violence must also be educated to refrain from offering their own advice and instead encouraged to direct victims towards appropriate support, be this their GP, one of the free domestic violence helplines or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that can provide access to the expert emotional, practical, financial and legal support needed to help the victim move forward, from as little as a few pounds  per employee a year.

Anne Payne is co-founder of the psychological health consultancy, The Validium Group

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage