Being an 'active bystander': gender-based violence requires an active community response.
Trigger warning: Please be aware that this article discusses domestic and family violence and may be triggering for some readers. If you are experiencing domestic and family violence yourself, please phone 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 to receive advice and support.
I heard a story once. It was about a family that lived in a small NSW country town. Everyone knew them - a couple and their three daughters. They were both from well-known farming families. The man was movie-star-gorgeous, rugged and strong. He was a farm-hand and drover who fought in WW2. The woman was tall, statuesque and graceful, the spitting image of the Queen of England, but the story went that she hated her height so much that every day she stooped lower and lower, trying to stand at the height of every other average-heighted woman. She did this so often that her back was crooked and she walked with a stooped back, permanently.
I know this couple’s story because they are my grandparents. But I also know that there was another reason that my grandmother stooped so low. A less glamorous and less easily retold reason… her experience of family violence.
I carry this story with me every day as I work in the domestic and family violence sector. One of my parents grew up in the middle of this story, with all this horror. It was so brutal that my grandmother eventually lost her sight in her late thirties due to the repeated blows to the face she endured. And yes, I am and have been angry at my grandfather as I’ve carried this story. But my anger doesn’t rest entirely on him.
My grandparents lived in a tiny, country farming town. No one’s business in this town was private. Everyone knew what was going on inside everyone else’s family home, or at least, they had a fair idea. Everyone knew what was going on inside my grandmother’s family home, or at least they had a fair idea. But no one did or said a thing. A community knew, but stayed silent.
With the recent media attention given to domestic and family violence, and with the robust laws and hardworking police who work in dedicated DV units, I optimistically thought that the historical community shame had been lifted, and that people today will intervene in DV situations with people they know and with people they don’t. But my work is making me increasingly aware that bystander interventions don’t happen often enough.
Recently on a family beach holiday, I became the first responder to a serious and devastating assault. Note that I say ‘first responder’ rather than ‘first to the scene’. I wasn’t the first to the scene, I’m afraid, I was simply the first in a small crowd of shocked people to go over and ask, “Is everything ok?”
This experience has led me to reflect upon what it is that prevents us from being an active bystander in relation to gender-based violence. To ask what it is that holds us back, and is behind the fear, and to consider the calculated cost to intervening in cases of gender-based violence.
Following this incident on my holiday, I compiled a generic how-to guide on being an active bystander in relation to domestic and family violence. I’m conscious that there are so many other pieces of advice I could add, but it is a start, and I pray it is helpful to someone who reads this.
1. Gut instincts are often right.
Your very first sense of 'something's not right here' or a strong feeling that someone is in danger or at risk of harm, is worth trusting. In my case, I heard screaming that woke me and made me think 'someone is terrified'.
2. Following this gut instinct, we all will try and make sense of a situation before we intervene.
I found myself rationalizing or even minimizing the screaming i heard: 'someone's just had a bad dream', 'someone's having a night terror or psychotic episode', 'some young kids are drunk'. All these thoughts went through my mind before I intervened. The situation was none of these and not even close.
3. There is usually no harm in asking some inane questions like: "Is everything ok?" or "Do you need help?"
Stepping in often seems like the biggest hurdle. So if you do intervene, keep your phone on you at all times and you have a friend and/or other bystanders nearby. You do need to evaluate your own safety and risk, but that evaluation does not mean you must simply exit the situation. It may mean that before you approach a perpetrator you stand at a safe distance and say, “I’m phoning the police” or if safe to do so, you take photos. Every situation is different.
4. Things can happen very quickly after a bystander intervenes.
This situation was quite confusing initially as I was hearing multiple explanations at once.
5. What I teach in my DFV trainings, that belief in someone's disclosure is paramount, is true in every instance.
Even that night as I was running after the victim at 2am across a dark caravan park yelling, “I believe you”. Sounds crazy, but it was exactly what she needed to hear.
6. As an active bystander, we need to:
b) communicate “I believe you”
c) call for help - in this instance I rang 000
d). keep yourself and the victim safe until help arrives - usually the emergency operator will keep you on the phone until the responders arrive which may feel like an hour, but usually it's under 10 minutes.
For some, once police/paramedics arrive, your role as an active bystander may be over. For me the arrival of six male police officers was not an ideal response and I wasn't willing to leave until there was at least one other female responder.
Many of us become frozen in these situations. But my understanding from the large number of people that had heard this incident and even walked over but did not intervene, is that people just don't know what to do. And even someone like myself who has worked professionally in crisis response, I still found myself denying my initial instincts to rationalise a more favourable explanation. We all just need to step in sooner (if it is safe to do so) and ask, '’Are you ok?'.
As I write this post I think about my own grandmother who was bound by the context of shame. Everyone was too ashamed to talk about what was happening. Shame stopped her seeking help, and stopped a community offering to help and provide safety. Perhaps phrases like, ‘It’s behind closed doors’ or, ‘It’s a private matter’ may have been uttered. I’m not convinced that police in these times would have even responded.
But the sad truth is that this attitude of shame is not entirely in the past. Tragically, it is still often a very present attitude and very real experience. Just last week I heard about professional first responders refer to attending a domestic and family violence incident as ‘“just a domestic”. And other times when I’ve asked people who are retelling an incident of violence they saw to me whether they called the police, they’ve told me, “Nah, they are always fighting like that”.
In my recent holiday experience, there was no heroism on my part. But there was heroism in the story. There was a victim brave enough to cry out for help, with the hope that someone… anyone… would not just hear, but act.
I don’t know if my own grandmother ever called out for help. Perhaps she didn’t believe that anyone could or would assist her. Sadly, in the 1960s this would have been a radical act, to intervene. But we must not let that be the case today.
May I encourage you to consider (safely) intervening in similar cases? A whole community can learn from one act of intervention. And even more importantly, when a whole community intervenes, it sends a clear and important message to a victim. The message is that violence against women is not acceptable and that they have a voice that will be heard. That justice will be sought and that we will resist with them.
Being an active bystander is an act of solidarity. Because, as Aboriginal activist Lila Watson states, we are all reliant on the liberation of those who are oppressed.
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."