Maya Raghu has always been interested in human rights. A child of immigrant parents, she was fascinated by the responsibilities of citizenship and its intersection with the rights of the people she saw around her.
She carries that responsibility into her work today as an attorney and expert on issues of domestic and sexual violence, an issue that disproportionately affects women, and particularly women of color.
In her professional journey, Raghu quickly realized domestic violence is a difficult issue to confront because there are so many factors that affect the outcomes of survivors, especially those who are low-income.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed in the US to protect women from domestic violence, provides some protection for victims, but often doesn’t hold perpetrators accountable at a level that realistically best protects survivors.
For example, advocates and support organizations quickly recognized that the VAWA law wasn’t doing enough to provide critical services to survivors of domestic violence and did little to address financial abuse. Many women feel they cannot escape their abuser because they have no control over their personal finances, leaving them without a way to provide for themselves or their children.
Raghu and other advocates noticed a critical issue: victims of domestic violence are always told to seek support, but assistance often leaves out their place of work, leaving them with an unrealistic option for protection.
Raghu emphasized the fact that “Domestic violence can and will follow the victim from their house, permeating their lives with fear, instability, and violence.”
This means, for many women, the support they can get from their employers and workplaces is just as important as securing safe housing.
To address this issue, in her former position as Senior Attorney at Futures Without Violence (FUTURES), a nonprofit working to end violence against women, children, and families around the world, Raghu worked to support survivors of domestic violence by founding Workplaces Respond, which serves as a direct answer to some of the missing legislation and lack of cultural awareness in the US workplace.
THE IMPACT OF ABUSE
When victims are able to escape an abusive situation, economic security is crucial to the well-being and recovery of survivors of domestic violence. Experiencing abuse, however, greatly impacts a survivor’s job, including their performance, and often results in time away from work due to the hours spent at court. Often, women trying to get out of a domestic violence situation are forced to quit because they know their abuser knows where to find them at work.
Raghu shared a story of a woman who had recently gotten out of an abusive relationship. She was going through the court process to try to gain protection from her abuser. Tragically, she was stalked to their workplace by the perpetrator, who shot and killed her before any protections had been put in place.
Immigrant women especially are caught in a vicious cycle: if they report an experience of domestic or sexual violence at work, it sometimes costs them their job due to perpetrator retaliation, even though many cases of domestic violence against immigrant women are never brought to court. Often times, Raghu stated, a company’s first response is to punish the victim for disturbances in the workplace because it seems the easiest way to address the issue. Changing the culture of the workplace is a hard-fought solution, but Raghu believes it can make a huge impact and make workplaces safer for women.
To facilitate this change, the Workplaces Respond team aims to create collaborations between companies, employees, worker’s unions and anti-violence service providers. Their goal is reduce domestic and sexual violence, harassment, and stalking in some of the areas where this is most prevalent: service industry jobs, particularly in restaurants and agriculture. An important part of this work is to build support systems that help to preserve economic security for women that are enduring sexual or domestic violence situations.
BUSINESSES AS PART OF THE SOLUTION
Currently, there are five sites in the US participating in the Workplaces Respond program: a hospital in Maryland that suffered the loss of two employees who were murdered by a domestic violence perpetrator, a farm in Florida, and three restaurants in New York.
Each site has implemented a new workplace policy that addresses domestic violence or stalking and are collectively designing domestic violence education and awareness materials, such as posters and safety cards. Additionally, FUTURES is helping them develop a domestic violence awareness and response program for managers and supervisors that will be adapted for employees. These programs will provide training for everyone at the workplace to be able to call out what Raghu called “bad behavior”, equipping them with the knowledge to stand up to and report abusive behaviors.
More leadership is needed from companies to combat domestic violence – unfortunately, 70% of workplaces in the US do not have formal policies to address workplace violence. Raghu stressed it’s important for employers who believe that addressing domestic violence against their employees is not a company priority not to “wait until someone in your workplace gets killed.”
She painted a scenario with bad outcomes for everyone: An employer believes that domestic violence issues do not concern their workplace, however an employee is hurt or killed. Typically, the media gets ahold of the story, and a negative spotlight is publicly shined on that workplace’s practices, surfacing safety and liability issues. The result is not only a terrible human cost with injured and traumatized employees, but also a potential a big economic setback of bad PR and a reputation of being an “unsafe place to work”.
HR CAN BE POWERFUL ADVOCATES
“HR directors can be the ones to help drive the creation of new policies”, Raghu said, and can often serve as the lynchpin to secure new measures that advocate for employees who have suffered domestic or sexual violence and provide them more safety at the workplace. Raghu has traveled the country speaking at conferences to raise awareness and bring to light key roles HR professionals can play to help keep their colleagues safe.
When there isn’t an HR department, Raghu said, creating collaborations of different outlets that can connect employers and employees that need support is especially important.
Raghu remarked that although there’s still a lot of work to be done, it’s encouraging that these issues are beginning to have a much higher profile in the public eye.
She said, “We can always use more allies, especially in these times.”
MODELS OF CHANGE
The good news is that some companies already are addressing these issues quietly, although the stigma remains that domestic violence is a private, personal issue. Raghu, however, strongly believes that other companies are best champions to model change. She’s noticed over the years that as more companies change their practices, the more continue to follow suit. After the domestic violence scandal with the NFL, other leagues, such as the NHL, started working with anti-violence organizations.
Raghu, a strong leader of color fighting to improve the lives of low-income women, is advocating for families, too. She noted that it’s incredibly important to hold perpetrators accountable, but her work, and the work of FUTURES, isn’t about punishment: the goal is for everyone to have healthy and successful families.
As it stands, the horrors of domestic violence continue to stem deep into the live and livelihoods of victims. Employers have a responsibility to protect their workers while they’re on company time, and programs like Workplaces Respond are a critical part of the solution. Giving them support outside the workplace to ensure the health and productivity of employees just makes sense.
“Most survivors don’t have resources or emotional energy to find an attorney, bring a lawsuit. They just want to stay safe and move on with their lives”.