The Feministing Five: Maya Raghu

Domestic violence, despite its name, is hardly just contained to the home. As Feministing has covered again and again, its effects span across various policy spheres and environments. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and, to mark it, we spoke with advocate Maya Raghu to learn how domestic violence impacts the workplace. 

Maya RaghuAt Futures Without Violence, Maya Raghu leads FUTURES’ Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence initiative, which provides resources and solutions to prevent and respond to violence in the workplace. Her extremely important work highlights how this violence should never solely fall on the shoulders of a single survivor, but rather the wider community.

And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Maya Raghu!

Suzanna Bobadilla: As I was preparing for this interview, I was reflecting on how the media still reports domestic violence as instances that occur in the home, despite such public tragedies like the Delta State University shooting earlier last month. It was an act of domestic violence that was brought to the workplace but was not described as such. Why do you think domestic violence remains separated from conversations about gender in the workplace?

Maya Raghu: That’s an excellent observation and that is a lot of what we battle with and try to dispel stereotypes in the course of our work, particularly the Workplaces Respond project. Although people, for the most part, recognize that domestic violence tends to be a gendered crime. Domestic violence is a very gendered issue that has not really permeated outside of the spheres of criminal justice.

I think part of that is because most people are still thinking of domestic violence only in the context of the home and being a private matter — not something that, even if it does spill into public spaces, they should address. Our work entails raising awareness and moving people beyond that mindset when it comes to how violence is impacting all of these so-called public spaces, whether it’s street harassment, the workplace, housing, and healthcare.

For example, I am constantly coming up against the way people see sexual assault as purely a criminal justice matter and sexual harassment as purely a civil law matter that arises in the workplace context, but not really seeing the connection between the two. They don’t see how sexual harassment and the behaviors that make up sexual harassment are the predicate acts that are almost on a continuum leading up to sexual assault and rape. If you don’t see those kinds of connections then, as an employer, you think about sexual harassment and doing a training, but you’re not thinking about the other implications if that behavior progresses.

SB: What are some of the biggest misconceptions of domestic violence in the workplace?

MR: A big one that’s layered would be about raising awareness — raising awareness in companies, unions, worker centers, health-care providers. It’s important for them to realize what the impact of violence is and not just on the survivor, but on the workplace — whether economically, the human cost of lost lives, or safety issues.

Once we have raised awareness, we need people to take action in an empathetic and effective way that is supportive of employees who are victims and holds perpetrators accountable.

While response is very important, as an organization, we are also focused on prevention. The best way to reduce harm, cost, and liability is to stop these kinds of things in the first place. That goes to changing culture and changing social norms around this issue. It’s a long-term process, but it’s really important. It’s hard to convince people to do that rather than just reacting to violence. It’s important that people think about domestic violence in the workplace proactively. They should really sit down and think, “What would we do in these types of situations? How can we let people know that they can come forward and tell us when something is going on before there is a violent incident?”

Another misconception that we would like to change is when survivors are stalked at the workplace, harassed at the workplace, or a perpetrator shows up at the workplace. What we find a lot of times is, understandably, it makes co-workers and employers nervous. A lot of times they feel like, “Well okay, if I just tell the survivor to go on leave or I fire them, the problem will go away.” A lot of survivors loose a really critical means of supporting themselves and their families and keeping them safe. In a domestic violence context, sometimes people will stay with the abuser because they don’t have any other resources, they don’t have anywhere else to live. If you don’t have a job, it makes it much less likely that you will be able to leave and have your own place. So we are battling this perception that victims are the source of the problem. This goes back to victim-blaming behavior, but particularly in this work place environment we see a lot of a lack of accountability for perpetrators and [understand] that they are the cause of it.

We also spend a lot of time getting employers and other stakeholders to understand how violence impacts victims and why they need support and assistance. In the workplace particularly, a lot of employers aren’t thinking about how their employees can be perpetrators as well. So what does that mean? That brings a whole host of legal, safety, and employment issues. We need people to understand this and to be proactive about it.

SB: What kinds of rights do people have who are currently facing domestic violence at the workplace?

MR: That’s a great question and the answer is that it depends on where you happen to live. It’s very unfortunate because support and things that may save your life shouldn’t be dependent on your zip code. But that’s the state of things right now.

There aren’t any specific legal protections for survivors on the federal level. Of course, in a workplace context, federal laws like Title VII, which is about employment discrimination, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Family and Medical Leave Act can apply to survivors if they need time off or they have medical condition as a result of violence.

There are some other policy issues at the federal level. For example, President Obama issued an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to provide their employees with paid sick leave. Part of that Executive Order is that survivors of domestic and sexual violence can also use that leave to address issues relating to the violence. That’s really critical because a lot of survivors don’t have any leave or paid leave. A lot of them especially those in low-wage or minimum jobs certainly don’t have access to those kinds of benefits.

About three years ago, President Obama also issued an Executive Order requiring all federal agencies to have policies addressing this issue. Some of them provide certain rights and responsibilities to survivors as well when it comes to the work place.

At the state level, it’s really a very different picture. It’s a patch work of different laws and protections. Right now there are almost ten states that prohibit employment discrimination against survivors of domestic or sexual violence. That means that you can’t hire, fire, or treat someone differently just because they are victims of those forms of violence.

Other states, maybe 15-20, provide survivors access to unpaid leave. However, we have seen this trend of cities passing paid sick leave laws and a lot of them have previsions to let survivors use that to take time off of work. In addition, in almost every state now if a survivor needs to leave a job because of violence, they can apply for unemployment insurance benefits. It’s not that substantial, but any source of income can be helpful during a difficult period like that, especially when you are trying to support a family.

SB: If you are an employer, what can you do to start supporting employees who might be facing this violence?

MR: It goes back to the issue of being proactive and not waiting for something to happen. It’s important to make sure that there is support for taking action on domestic violence at the top. It will require some resources and activities, and it’s always helpful to have the CEO or the owner to go along with that. It sends an important message that this is a serious issue. These are things that companies can do no matter what their size.

I would then say to bring together a team of people who would be involved if something like this came up in the workplace. For example, if someone was being stalked and the perpetrator showed up and there was a safety threat, what would you do? Well you would want to get HR, legal, security, the union, and medical personnel to understand who is the point person here and who would make the right decisions.

We also encourage employers to make public signs of support in the workplace. It can be as easy to put up a poster that says “If you need help, here’s the number of a resource.” That way an employer doesn’t have to be a part of that first conversation. A lot of what we do is assure employers that they don’t need to become experts on violence. We don’t want them to be. We just want them to open channels of communication and have a plan and to connect experts that already exist in the community.

It’s also important to develop workplace policies to address this issue. As we have talked about there is this crazy patchwork of laws in different states — if your company is across different states, you need to know what is required in each of those states. Let people know that this is what we provide, this is how you have to ask for it, this is what might happen, and these are your rights.

It’s also important that employers do some trainings so that managers can have an idea of what to expect and so that employees know where to go if they need help or report something.

SB: Let’s pretend you are stranded on a desert island. You can take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose?

MR: For food, I’d bring Indian food. My drink would be prosecco. My feminist would be Barbara Jordan. As a fellow Houstonian, she was so inspiring when I was growing up, and I would love to hear stories about what it was like trying to engage in gender, racial, and social justice work in Texas at that time.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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