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Introduction to Safe Spaces

Safe spaces are defined as places "intended to be free from bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas or conversations" [1]. They can look very different for different people, and may be formal or informal, but ultimately their purpose is to provide a safe, confidential space that is free from judgment and unsolicited opinions. For survivors of sexual violence, abuse and harassment, safe spaces play a vital role in offering support, guidance on reporting incidents, and seeking professional care and advice. In a situation where someone feels intimidated, unable to speak up, or fearful of being dismissed, creating a safe space signals to survivors that their complaints will be taken seriously and listened to.

The term 'safe space' originated in gay and lesbian bars in the 1960s at a time when anti-sodomy laws were still in effect across the US and same-sex couples could not express affection in public without risking criminal punishment, harassment or violence. These places were not 'safe' in the sense that they were free from risk, but rather that they were a place where members of the LGBTQ+ community could reject, and find some relief from, political and social repression [2].

The concept of safe spaces has since expanded both in definition and practice. Their existence has been hotly debated, with arguments being put forward that creating spaces that are intentionally free from judgment, criticism and conflict is a threat to free speech. But separating spaces for debate and spaces for support is important for marginalised groups whose identities are consistently challenged, threatened and politicised. Creating safe spaces offers the freedom to exist without having to justify their thoughts and feelings, or have the validity of their experiences challenged. Similarly, it is common for survivors of domestic abuse, sexual harassment and violence to face harmful questions on how their actions may have contributed to abuse, or questions on the validity or truth of their stories, and creating safe spaces offers some relief from that.

What do safe spaces look like?

Safe spaces can be both formal and informal, both of which are importance.

Formal safe spaces are officially designated spaces, for example a counsellor's office. In the workplace, it could be a designated room in the office where employees can discuss their experience and access a phone or computer to contact family members or find further resources. Many businesses in the UK operating in the public arena have already created designated safe spaces in their stores. For example, Boots, Morrisons pharmacies, Superdrug pharmacies, HSBC and TSB banks, and many independent pharmacies have designated consultation rooms for people experiencing domestic abuse to safely and discreetly reach out to family and friends and contact support services [3]. Creating safe spaces at an institutional level, therefore, offers survivors access to information that is accurate and confidential and allows them to plan next steps safely.

However, a safe space does not have to be a physical, designated location. Many of us have access to informal safe spaces through our own support networks in the form of a trusted family member, friend or colleague who can provide a supportive and respectful environment for those experiencing abuse. There are also volunteer helplines that survivors can contact to talk about their experience if their own networks are unstable or inaccessible. Both informal and formal spaces are significant -- there may be an impersonality to official spaces which is why, if possible, it is important for survivors to have access to unofficial safe spaces to provide emotional support and comfort. However, survivor's access to informal support networks may be violated by their abuser and so creating discreet spaces in a formal setting can be the first step to reaching out after this kind of isolation from friends and family.

How can your business create a safe space?

  1. Promote dialogue within your workplace to break taboos and stigma surrounding abuse. Remember that the workplace may be the main escape that survivors of abuse have from their abuser throughout the day and therefore can be a key opportunity to access helplines, frontline charities, and organisations that can offer support. Make sure that employees know that resources are there, and where they can find them.

  2. Implement policies that set out what is acceptable at work. Create safer workplaces that are backed by policies that have a zero tolerance for harassment.

  3. Invest in leadership. Ensure senior staff, managers and supervisors are informed and equipped to spot signs of abuse and support employees should they disclose incidents of abuse, including helping them to create a long-term action plan and access frontline expertise and advice.

  4. Don't avoid uncomfortable discussions. Abuse and harassment is a difficult topic and it may feel uncomfortable to discuss this in a more formal setting, such as with an employer. However, being supportive, calm and open can put survivors of abuse at ease and encourage them to discuss their experiences and seek further help.

  5. Create a designated safe space to talk and inform all employees of how they can access this space and what it can be used for. It may be a designated room in an office with access to a phone, a computer, and resources form frontline charities. The space can also be used to discuss experiences informally with a trusted colleague.

  6. Offer training to employees to create awareness-raising on identifying signs of abuse and harassment, how to deal with these incidents sensitively and safely, and how to support someone experiencing abuse. Doing so improves company attitudes, culture, and employee wellbeing.

  7. Prepare to be flexible. Experiences of abuse harassment are highly personal and each situation will differ. This means that survivor's needs will also vary, including if, when and how they are willing to take action to report incidents and/or leave their abuser. Make sure employees know where to access information, resources and help, but do not force them to use it before they are ready. Doing so may actually create more risk for the employee.

  8. Build trust with employees by implementing the above steps and demonstrating that you are taking decisive action to address this issue. Clearly state that all disclosures of abuse and harassment will be taken seriously and th