As Michelle Bachelet, head of UN Women, said the other day, we can end violence against women, but only together. We are all responsible. We are all implicated in the change required to make possible a world where women can live free from the threat, and reality, of violence. It’s relatively easy to say, and understand, but what does accepting that responsibility involve? What would it look like if we were, each and every one of us, to take up that responsibility and be part of the process of ending violence against women?
One answer to this question is bystander prevention. Otherwise, and more simply, known as ‘speaking up’. Bystander prevention sounds complicated but really, it is very straightforward. It involves firstly recognising that social norms, attitudes and behaviour can all act as warning signs, and enablers, of potential danger. Sexist attitudes and sexist behaviour are potent indicators of risk and are all contributors to a culture that supports and enables violence against women. Recognising this – both the problematic behaviours and cultures and the link between attitudes and violence, is the first step.
Secondly, it involves speaking up, or intervening. Challenging sexist attitudes, calling out sexist behaviour. Making it known that the behaviour you witnessed is problematic and unacceptable. Calling out sexism and not letting it pass unquestioned. Advocating for the victim, or target, of such abuse. Taking responsibility in situations that involve potentially hurtful and harmful behaviours and choosing where you stand. With the abuser or the victim?
As one campaign, taking place at the University of Northern Iowa, puts it: “This new role involves interrupting a situation that could lead to an assault before it happens, intervening appropriately at the time the offensive behavior occurs, speaking out against social norms that support sexual and gender violence, and learning skills to be an effective and supportive ally to survivors of violence and abuse. Bystander education and primary violence prevention strategies will engage the entire (community) in cultivating a safe, nurturing and thriving atmosphere.”
Bystander prevention doesn’t mean being a hero, nor does it meaning coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress. Bystander prevention doesn’t mean putting yourself at risk. You don’t have to be a superhero. Or an action hero. Just an ordinary person with a conscience and the awareness of how to safely stand up for what’s right.
Bystander prevention does mean acknowledging that each of us has the power to advocate for a world free from violence in our day to day lives. Sexism and a culture of implicit and explicit violence against women is all around us and sooner or later we will all witness direct evidence of it in our own lives. When that time comes – will you be ready to speak up for what’s right?
To learn more about bystander prevention:
- VicHealth research
- Australian Human Rights Commission
- University of Northern Iowa
- National Sexual Violence Resource Centre (US)