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leah eichler

The new year started on a heavy note as two high-profile rape cases continued to dominate global media, serving as a haunting reminder of the threat of violence against women, an issue that remains taboo in the corporate world.

In India, a 23-year old physiotherapy student was brutally gang raped on a bus in New Delhi in December; she later died. Then there's the case in Steubenville, Ohio, where two football players have been accused of kidnapping and raping a 16-year old girl. That occurred last August but gained international attention after an article in The New York Times.

In a 2012 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five women reported being raped. Since many of them are employed, that means such violence harms more than just the female victims: It also hurts productivity and carries a significant economic impact.

Yet, unlike other socially conscious issues that companies arequick to embrace – protecting the environment, fighting cancer – violence against women remains an issue too uncomfortable to tackle. This needs to change, if for no other reason than it hurts the corporate bottom line.

For example, in the aftermath of New Delhi attack, a survey by the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry in India found the incident affected productivity in several major cities. Nearly 82 per cent of the 2,500 women surveyed said they were leaving work early and 89 per cent insisted on leaving on time, reducing productivity in the information technology and outsourcing sector by 40 per cent. The study also found that most female workers felt they were at risk of violence while at their job after working hours, or on the way home on public transit.

According to the American Institute on Domestic Violence, victims lose nearly eight million days of paid work each year, the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs. The cost of violence against women in Canada – including health care, criminal justice, social services, lost wages and productivity – has been estimated at $4.2-billion annually, according to the Canadian Women's Foundation.

A single act of violence might result in absence from work, lower productivity, increased down time while at work, and administrative costs to process the worker's absence, said Kathy Willis, executive director of Midland, Ont.-based Huronia Transition Homes, a not-for-profit organization working to end violence against women.

"Given that violence against women impacts productivity, efficiency, work flow and ultimately the bottom line, the private sector does need to play a role in ending violence against women," Ms. Willis said. She believes more research measuring the financial impact of violence on the private sector would force business to pay greater attention.

The economic impact of violence against women has not gone completely unnoticed. In a U.S. survey of senior corporate executives by Liz Claiborne Inc. in 2002, 91 per cent agreed that domestic violence affects both the private and working lives of their employees, but only 12 per cent of leaders said companies should play a major role in addressing the issue – a number unchanged since 1994.

A few major companies whose products are directed at women have taken action; Avon Products Inc. pushed Hungary to pass a law criminalizing acts of domestic violence, and Liz Claiborne Inc. finances studies on the issue. And although more companies offer counselling and provide access to housing, medical or legal assistance to victims of violence, the business world's response remains more reactionary than preventative.

Companies need to take active steps to decrease the stigma of violence against women, Ms. Willis said, as well as partner with shelters and counselling centres and intervene when sexist and misogynist behaviour occurs in the workplace. They could also sponsor women's self-defence programs.

I believe private industry can also do more, starting with resisting marketing campaigns that portray women as sex objects. The proliferation of violent and sexist imagery against women that businesses continue to tolerate only serves to blind us against this epidemic.

Take, for example, a technology company called Voco. When advertising its booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, it used the taglines "Play with my V-Spot" and "Because Oral is Better" beside an image of a woman's wet, red lips. I get it: Sex sells, but at a price to women, especially in an industry not known to be female-friendly.

"Study after study indicates that violence is an equity issue, but we fall short in terms of making systemic changes, which will promote women's equality. Sexism and misogyny perpetuate inequality, which perpetuates violence against women," Ms. Willis said.

The fatal attack in New Delhi not only ignited protests across that country, it also raised the issue of violence against women globally and it's time the private sector played a more active role. Yes, violence against women is a human rights issue. But if that doesn't inspire business leaders to take a stand, then perhaps the hidden economic impact will.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.