In the fall of 2012, the Avon Foundation, supporting several native NGOs, helped pass legislation in Hungary declaring domestic violence illegal. It was a huge victory for women’s rights in Hungary, and the conclusion of a battle that NGOs there had been waging for more than two decades.
Less than a year prior, Avon Hungary threw its support behind these efforts to help raise awareness of the issue and move the bill forward. Avon’s formidable sales force, more than 70,000 strong, was instrumental in helping to gather the signatures needed to force parliament to put the initiative on their agenda and discuss it. While only 50,000 signatures were needed, the petition gained more than 100,000. And then, it almost all fell apart, until one man’s misogyny caused a nation to rally behind this issue.
Although the petition had plenty of support, the legislature had so little regard for this issue, they scheduled discussion for the middle of the night. The bill looked doomed to fail, until one parliamentarian, Fidesz MP István Varga, declared on the record,
Women should primarily focus on raising children, and we should discuss how families could have three, four or five kids rather than only one or two. This would help us to honour each other more, and domestic violence would not be an issue…. After helping the country by giving birth to two, three or four children, … women can find and emancipate themselves.
That singular comment turned the tables on the fate of the bill and unleashed a furor of public outrage at the attitude of Hungary’s government toward the role of its women in society. Within days of that comment becoming public, the bill passed unanimously.
In 2004, the Avon Foundation formally and publicly took up the fight against domestic violence, an admittedly “ugly issue” according to Susan Arnot Heaney, Executive Director, Corporate Responsibility at Avon Products, that not many organizations are willing to take on.
But, the cosmetics giant did not embrace this barbed issue lightly. “You cannot lead if no one will follow,” Heaney said. The foundation commissioned a global study by a large consulting firm to determine the worldwide scope of the problem and if it was a fit for Avon. In addition, the foundation wanted to know if their own sales force and customers would rally behind this cause. The answer to both questions, Heany said, “was a resounding YES,” and Avon’s Speak Out Against Domestic Violence program was born.
Due to the nature of their direct sales cosmetics business, Avon representatives themselves are in a unique position to view domestic situations up close as they visit customers’ homes or meet with them one-on-one during an office consultation. Many times these representatives intuit a bad situation right away. When Avon announced their formal support for this issue, their sales force cheered. The company also discovered how close to home this issue really is when some of their own representatives disclosed that they had been victims of such abuse.
Veronika Toth, Communications Specialist, Avon Hungary, said, “Violence against women is a worldwide epidemic of devastating proportions. Approximately one in three women worldwide will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime.”
The Avon Foundation doesn’t believe in a singular approach to a problem, but rather uses a multi-pronged, systemic attack in order to make progress. Heaney believes the strongest tool at this stage of the issue is awareness and education. “There are two types of awareness: awareness [by the perpetrators] that it’s wrong, and awareness for victims that they deserve something better.” Then, Heaney said, the next step is to pass laws and enforce them, and educate law enforcement on how to deal with these situations.
In 2009, Avon established the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School. The center works with legal professionals and NGOs to “improve access to justice in an effort to eliminate violence against women and girls.” It has pioneered studies around the world relating to violence against women and recommended actions for governments to aid in prevention.
The Speak Out program is now in more than 50 countries, putting Avon in a position to have a huge impact on a global problem. However, Avon does not go in and impose Western morals on native cultures. “Working in different countries demands cultural knowledge and sensitivity,” Heaney said. The foundation excels at finding NGOs that are culturally savvy and socially sensitive, and finding ways to support them and raise awareness to effect change. Toth agreed, emphasizing the relationships Avon Hungary built with NGOs there to finally get the petition heard, and ultimately, the bill passed.
One of the strongest holds over women in bad situations is the lack of financial means to escape. Avon offers women who might not have the immediate means to find work, a chance at a career and financial independence. Studies show that empowering women benefits communities. While domestic violence might seem like a purely personal problem, it is, in fact, a significant business problem.
According to the Battered Women’s Shelter, in the U.S.:
- Intimate partner violence costs exceed $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services.
- Victims of intimate partner violence lose almost 8 million days of paid work each year. This is equivalent to more than 32,000 full-time jobs and almost 5.6 million days of household productivity.
- There are 16,800 homicides and 2.2 million (medically treated) injuries due to intimate partner violence annually, which costs $37 billion.
- Between 35% and 56% of victims of intimate partner violence are harassed at work by their abusers.
- Over 1.75 million workdays are lost as a result of domestic violence each year.
- $3 to $5 billion is lost annually in absenteeism, decreased productivity, and health and safety costs.
- Many domestic violence victims report that they have lost a job due to domestic violence.
The jobless landscape and economic climate only exacerbate this problem. Reports of domestic violence have skyrocketed since the economic downturn.
In addition to continuing their current initiatives, Avon is not resting on its laurels, but looking toward the future, taking aim at prevention and incorporating some high-tech weapons, as well as focusing its attention on certain at-risk segments of the U.S. population. The Battered Women’s Justice Project supports military personnel and veterans, and Honor Our Voices listens to children who witnessed domestic violence, trying to break the cycle and prevent future violence. The foundation and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) have even joined together to create the Ending Violence @ Home App Challenge, a program to create apps that drive awareness and prevention of domestic abuse.
Avon won a significant battle by helping pass legislation in Hungary, hopefully it is on its way to winning the war on domestic violence around the world.