What Bystanders Can Do

How YOU Can Be More Than A Bystander

The “Be More Than A Bystander” Campaign is a proactive one, which seeks to create a culture in our society that intervenes on abusive attitudes and behaviour directed towards women in their earliest stages, before they have had the chance to escalate along the continuum of violence. A culture that no longer sits idly by, condoning violence against women through its silence, but one where individuals are empowered to actively help prevent violence against women.

Chances are that at some point in your daily life you have witnessed, heard or seen someone act in a way that was derogatory, degrading, abusive or violent towards women. Be it in the form of a joke, cat call, comment, put down, or physical or sexual assault, this is all violence against women. In these moments, people often feel that their only choices are to say nothing, look the other way or physically intervene, potentially exposing themselves to violence. There is much more in fact that can be done.

Much like there is a continuum of violence against women there is also a continuum of intervention. Intervention can take many forms and there is a mode of intervention to fit any and all individuals.

Intervention can be between friends and colleagues or between strangers. It can entail speaking out about an attitude/action or can be accomplished without using any words at all.

When being more than a bystander, the most important consideration is that of safety. If there is immediate danger or you feel that intervening would be unsafe for you, the woman or others involved, it is best to not intervene yourself but to call the police and/or security. When being more than a bystander, know that violence is never a solution and will only aggravate and escalate a situation.

In cases where there is no immediate danger, there are many ways that you can help by being more than a bystander and breaking the silence on violence against women.

By teaching bystanders some simple ways to express that derogatory, degrading, abusive and violent attitudes and behaviours directed towards women are not acceptable and will not be silently tolerated, this initiative aims to empower every individual to – in their own way – be more than a bystander.

Non-Verbal Ways That You Can Be More Than A Bystander

Refuse to join in when derogatory, degrading, abusive and violent attitudes or behaviours are being displayed.

  • Register your lack of approval for such attitudes or behaviours by leaving the individual or group who are perpetrating them. Staying silent while others act and behave inappropriately actually condones what they are doing; leaving shows that you don’t agree with it and are not willing to participate and act as an audience.
  • Offer your presence. If you see that a woman is being targeted, simply stand near to her so that she and the harasser/abuser know that she is not alone. He may be less likely to continue or escalate the violence knowing that there are witnesses.
  • Give control to the woman who is the target of the violence by speaking directly to her, ask “Is he bothering you?”, or “Are you okay?” and ask “Is there any way I can help?” This takes power away from the perpetrator. If the woman says that she would like your help, do what you can to be of assistance. If she expresses that she is not in need of your help, respect this and move on.
  • Take action if there is a threat of immediate danger by calling the police and/or security.

Verbal Ways That You Can Be More Than A Bystander If You Don't Know The Individual

  • Distraction as intervention: If you witness a woman being harassed/abused, ask the perpetrator for the time, or clear your throat while standing near him, this will momentarily break his focus from the target of his harassment.
  • Vocalize your support as intervention: If a woman alerts you that she has been harassed/abused in a crowd, call out in support “Hey man, leave her alone”, “I don’t like how you are treating her, stop it”.
  • Refuse to join in and discourage others from participating: Register that you don’t agree when derogatory, degrading, abusive and violent attitudes or behaviours are displayed. Be direct about what you have seen, point out the exact behaviour/attitude/words/action and don’t pass judgment on the individual perpetrating it.

You can say something to the effect of:

  • “I don’t think that joke is funny.” or “that joke makes me uncomfortable” to a joke or comment that condones violence against women.
  • “Your words/actions are uncalled for, what you’re saying/doing is wrong.”
  • “Your words/actions are having a negative effect on that woman, do you mean to make her feel badly? Everyone has the right to be physically and emotionally safe and you are infringing on that right.”
  • “It’s wrong to treat women that way. I don’t agree with what you’re doing/saying.”
  • “What you’re doing is harassment, not only is it wrong, it’s criminal.”
  • “How would you feel if another man did this to your mother, sister, wife or daughter?”
  • “The words/actions you’re using are derogatory, degrading, abusive and/or violent towards women. I won’t tolerate this kind of behaviour. Stop what you’re doing.”
  • Rally other bystanders to join you in voicing disapproval: “By being silent, you’re saying that this action/behaviour/attitude/word is alright with you. Well it’s not okay with me, I don’t respect it and I hope you don’t either.

Encourage other bystanders to join you in voicing disapproval. You may say something like:

  • “By being silent, you are tacitly saying this action/behaviour/attitude/words are alright with you. Well it’s not okay with me, I don’t respect it and I hope you don’t either. Join me in being more than a bystander, break the silence on violence against women.”
  • If there is immediate danger, call the police and/or security, if you feel it is safe to do so, let it be known to the perpetrator that the police have been called and that they should stop what they are doing because it is illegal.

Verbal Ways That You Can Be More Than A Bystander If You Know The Individual

Ideally, approach the person when they are alone, calm and you are in a situation where you can speak openly without being interrupted. Let them know that you are coming to speak with them because you care about them and are concerned about what is going on.

You can say something to the effect of:

  • “Something seems to be going on with you, can we talk?”
  • “I care about you and I’m worried about you, can I help?”

Directly reference the behaviour that you are concerned about but do not judge them as a human being. Try to avoid validating any excuses or justifications for the abuse. There is no excuse or justification for violence against women. The purpose of your intervention is to help this individual acknowledge that their actions/behaviour/attitude/words are not acceptable and get the help they need to ensure it is not repeated, not to justify the past.

  • “I couldn’t help but notice your actions/behaviours/attitudes/words the other day. I’m concerned because these actions/behaviours/attitudes/words are unhealthy.”
  • “I’m worried about you and her (and your children’s) safety because of your actions/behaviour/attitude/words.”
  • “I care about you and was really surprised to see you act/behave/speak in such a violent/unhealthy way towards your partner.”
  • “Your actions/behaviours/attitudes/words make me afraid that you may seriously hurt her if you don’t find a way to deal with your problems.”
  • Inform them that actions/behaviour/attitude/words constitute violence and that they need to stop. “When you act/behave/speak to her like that, do you see the effect your words/actions have on her emotionally/physically? That isn’t acceptable, everyone has the right to emotional and physical safety, it’s criminal to take that away from someone.”
  • “Healthy partners don’t act/behave/speak like that towards their partner, at the end of the day it amounts to violence and you need to stop acting/behaving/speaking this way.” Loving your partner should mean protecting her from abuse, not perpetrating it against her.
  • “The way you act/speak/behave makes me worry for the emotional and physical safety of your partner and your children. Children learn what relationships look like from their parents. Is this what you want your children learning is “healthy”?
  • “Violence against women is a crime, if you don’t find a way to work through your issues, you could be charged and end up incarcerated. I don’t want to see that happen.”

Provide him with some avenues that may help him curb his abusive behaviour:

  • Remind him that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there is help and that both he and his partner deserve health in their relationship. You may suggest that he see a professional counsellor.
  • Contact your local community based victim service program to find out what is available in your area for men who use violence.
  • For information about services throughout BC, call VictimLink BC at 1-800-563-0808. This 24/7 help line is free, confidential and multilingual.
  • For people looking for services in the Lower Mainland, you may also contactBC211 by dialing 211 on your phone, to speak with an information specialist to find out about services. Services are free, confidential, multilingual and are available 24/7.

How do I recognize when a man is acting in an inappropriate way?

Violence against women involves a continuum of actions, words, behaviors and criminal acts. It often starts with down putting and derogatory jokes, mean spirited words and/or sexualized comments or bragging. Following a woman and constant telephoning is actually a crime called criminal harassment. Forced or coerced sex is a crime too. If someone has had too much to drink, they cannot legally give consent to have sex therefore sex with someone in this state is against the law.

Here are some other signs of abuse:

  • He puts her down
  • He dominates her
  • He checks up on her all the time
  • He acts as if he owns her
  • He lies to make himself look good
  • He acts like he is superior to her

The situation is more dangerous if:

  • He threatens to harm her, her kids or people she cares about in any way
  • He is depressed
  • He has threatened to kill himself
  • He has abused others, including in the past and pets
  • He has ever hit or choked her
  • Blames her for his abusive actions
  • Watches her, follows her, controls her, reads her mail or email
  • Misuses drugs and/or alcohol
  • He has no respect for the law
  • She says she fears for her life
  • Has just left this person or is planning to leave
  • Has injuries she cannot explain
  • She is isolated either geographically or socially, lives far out of town, is not in touch with family, has no family living here or close by, has no friends, cannot speak English
  • She covers for him and minimizes what looks to you like abuse
  • Everyone, including men need to speak up when they see or hear it and tell him that his behavior is not acceptable.

Spotting the Signs
Looking at relationship history, a woman’s own perception of her risk levels, the history of the abuser and his access to weapons and firearms, are all signficant factors that contribute to identifying a woman’s risk level.

To download a 2-page information sheet about this, click here »

The information provided is for your general information only. We strongly suggest women work with a community worker who will be able to assist her in identifying risks and making a safety plan that meets her specific needs.

Understand How to Identify the Warning Signs
Understand How to Identify Lethality Factors
Understand the Prevalence and Gendered Nature of Violence Against Women

It is widely recognized that violence against women is a serious social problem in British Columbia and in Canada as it is elsewhere in the world. It is also widely recognized that violence against women is a gender-based crime, perpetrated primarily by men against women.

Women are more likely than men to be victimized by spousal assault and much more likely than men to be the victimized more severely (Randall, 2003; Statistics Canada, 2005). The 2004 Statistics Canada General Social Survey (GSS) reports that 7% or approximately 653,000 women were victimized by domestic or sexual violence in the five years up to and including 2004. Women were more likely than men to suffer serious forms of abuse, more than twice as likely to be injured, and more than six times as likely to seek medical attention as a result of the abuse. (Statistics Canada, 2005).

Most spousal assaults are committed by men. In 2005, 74% of spouse assaults reported to police in BC involved a male offender, 16% involved a female offender, and 10% involved both spouses. In addition, evidence indicates that women who do use violence against their partners are more likely to do so out of fear and a need to protect themselves (Maiuro et al, 2001; Randall, 2003; Saunders & Browne, 2000).

Both police statistics and victimization data indicate that females are far more likely than males to be victims of sexual assault and other sexual offences. According to the 2004 GSS, sexual victimization rates were almost five times higher for females compared to males. Police statistics indicate that rates of police-reported sexual offences against females were 5.6 times those against males. (Statistics Canada, 2008).

Males are far more likely than females to be the accused in sexual offences. 2007 data on police-reported sexual offences indicate that 97% of those accused of sexual offences were male, a figure that is higher than the proportion of males accused of all other types of violent crime (78%). (Statistics Canada, 2008).

Accused persons in sexual offences are also most likely to be young and to be known to the woman they are victimizing. Rates of sexual offending were highest among 12 to 17 year olds and second highest among 18 to 35 year olds. In more than half (55%) of sexual assaults reported to the 2004 GSS, the offender was a friend or acquaintance of the victim. In police-reported data for 2007 where the relationship between victim and offender could be identified, 82% of sexual assaults involved an offender known to the victim. (Statistics Canada, 2008).

Understand the Risk Factors for Young People

Issues of low self-esteem, bullying, substance abuse, gang involvement, teen violence, and violence against women are inextricably linked. (Wolfe et al, 2006). While no community is immune to risk of anti-social behaviour, we know that poverty, unemployment, the results of colonization, racism, substance use, and domestic or sexual violence in the home constitute particular risk factors for youth.

There are clear links between gangs and violence against women. Male gang members often perpetrate physical and sexual violence against their girlfriends or ex-girlfriends (Totten, 2000). Increased gang activity and violence therefore pose increased risks for women and children. In addition, many individuals involved with gangs come from families where gender stereotypes were perpetuated or where there was violence perpetrated upon their mothers (Totten, 2000), creating a cyclical dynamic of cause and effect, duplicated generation after generation.

Research shows that violence against women in their intimate relationships is more likely to occur when families are experiencing financial strain. Low income, unstable employment, and financial stresses do not cause men to commit violence but these issues increase an individuals sense of powerlessness and are some of the most commonly cited risk factors for violence against women in their intimate relationships, including homicide. (BC Institute Against Family Violence, 2006; Dutton & Kropp, 2000; Light, 2007). Other kinds of violence, including gang violence, also increase during periods of financial stress. Employment problems are also associated with increased risk for criminality and general violence (Andrews & Bonta, 1996, 2003; BC Institute Against Family Violence, 2006; Totten, 2008).

There is a significant intergenerational impact of violence in relationships. Almost 40% of women who were victims of domestic assault reported that their children witnessed the violence. Often the violence children witnessed was severe. (Johnson, 2006). An estimated 60% to 80% of children who live in homes where there is domestic violence directly witness the violence (Bala and Edwards, 1999).

Violence is learned behaviour. (Critical Components Project Team, 2008). Boys who are raised in families where their fathers abused their mothers may be more likely to grow up to be abusers. At the same time, girls who have grown up in families where their mothers have been victims of domestic violence may be more like to grow up to be themselves victims of domestic abuse. Psychological and behavioural impacts on children of witnessing violence against their mother are well documented (Ad Hoc Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group Reviewing Spousal Abuse Policies and Legislation, 2003; Bala & Edwards, 1999; Cunningham & Baker, 2007; Geffner, 2000; Jaffe et al, 2004; Johnson, 2006).

Understand the Need to Build Healthy Relationships

The linkages among these various risk factors point clearly to the need for initiatives that will directly impact women’s safety from violence by creating opportunities to ‘unlearn’ that male violence is normal; provide education about what constitutes a healthy relationship, including understanding what constitutes consent; and create role models that will stand up to say it is ‘not cool’ to abuse women or girls.

“One way of preventing violence against women is to promote attitudes and behaviors that are incompatible with violence and abuse, and that encourage the formation of healthy, nonviolent relationships. This paradigm shift is important. If attention and resources are primarily focused on the occurrence of undesirable behavior, such as identified acts of violence, then prevention efforts are usually directed toward identification, control and punishment. However, if the goal is the promotion of healthy, nonviolent relationships, then attention and resources are more likely to be directed toward establishing and building trust, respecting others’ thoughts and expressions, and encouraging and supporting growth in relationships.” (Wolfe et al, 2005).

Our Use of Gendered Terms

Please note: We use the term she/her when referring to the person being abused and he/him when referring to the abuser.  This is because by far the vast majority of sexual and intimate partner violence is perpetrated by men against women. We do wish to acknowledge that men can and have been victimized by women and that violence and abuse in the context of same sex relationships is also a reality.