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Staff blog

BLOG: How being an active bystander can reduce gender-based violence in our community

graphic of women marching / protesting

A blog by John Finnigan, Student Wellbeing Adviser, Directorate of Academic and Student Affairs, Queen’s University Belfast.


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

— Edmund Burke


The above quote sums up perfectly the theme of this blog. While the author may have used the term 'men' as a generic term, I will be exploring how we all in society have a role to play in actively working to reduce the scourge of gender based violence.

In 2017, I attended my first Bystander training session. I found this to be both enlightening and frightening in equal measure. It made me feel initially guilty. I thought of all the times when I could have intervened as a bystander, but didn’t for one reason or another.

For those of a similar generation, I call it the Sliding Doors effect: when a split second decision can alter the outcome of events. It’s similar to the law of cause and effect, whereby a single action will cause a reaction. What I learned from the training is the key is to do something. I will return to this later.

There are several important ways in which the University has made significant progress in this area to ensure that our staff and students feel confident and well equipped in this space. I manage the University’s Report and Support portal which provides students with a safe and confidential space to report incidences of sexual misconduct, bullying, harassment or hate crime. Students can report incidences anonymously or provide their details to receive one-to-one support from a Safe and Healthy Relationships Advocate. People and Culture’s Employee Assistance Programme, in partnership with Inspire, also continues to provide a 24/7 helpline for staff which provides free and confidential support with personal as well as professional issues.

In my role as Student Wellbeing Adviser for Safe and Healthy Relationships, I also provide 'Bringing in the Bystander' training to students, equipping them to understand their role as an active bystander and enabling them to learn strategies and techniques to help them play a role both prior, during and after any incident. The Active Bystander Training Company have also provided important training to our staff on this issue.

This year, 25 November - 10 December marks the United Nations 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. The theme this year is ‘Orange the World: End Violence against Women Now!’, creating a brighter future free from violence against woman and girls.

What has this got to do with being a Bystander? Well, as a male ally, I’m clear I can’t understand what it’s like for females to constantly experience harassment or gender-based violence. The stats are clear on this: the majority of victims are females, and the majority of perpetrators are male. However, as someone who has life experience of domestic violence and has worked with survivors of abuse for nearly 20 years, I can empathise with the impact that abuse can have, and, as an active bystander, I can challenge unacceptable behaviour when I see it.

The Bystander approach is one tool we have to make a difference. We hear a lot about bystanders these days and normally in a negative fashion, i.e. bystanders being witnesses. The model I train doesn’t target individual people or groups, but instead uses a community approach and says we all have a responsibility to reduce unacceptable behaviour. It also distinguishes between being active and passive.

To achieve this, we need firstly to recognise the situation. It amazes me how much more I see in public spaces now, whereas before my training I was often caught up in my own world and was not picking up on these cues.

The next step is for people to take a lead. Don’t underestimate the power that one person can have, but it does take someone to make the first step. Research shows that if people are asked, they are more likely to help. The evidence also highlights that the larger the crowd, the less likely someone will step up, as people can assume that they aren’t qualified or that someone else will deal with it. This is known as the bystander effect and the potential consequence is that no-one does anything.

When we talk about intervening, the most important aspect is the safety of the bystander and any potential victims. This is not about have-a-go heroes. Interventions can be indirect and discreet. It could be having a conversation with colleagues, friends or family. It could be sharing some support numbers with the person, interrupting a potential situation or alerting authorities to an incident.

The reality is we live in a culture where perpetrators in our society live in plain sight and create conditions where their behaviour is deemed acceptable. They twist the narrative of social norms to their advantage and minimise their behaviour.  

We see this everyday more often, whether it is banter in a changing room or just a joke amongst friends. Structures of power and control are used to protect predators and frighten victims; it’s no coincidence that in communities with high rates of victim blaming, there are low levels of reporting. Sexual violence is a gateway offence; it is very rare for predators to start with the most serious crimes, normally there is an escalation of risky behaviours.

As bystanders, we can have the most effect by challenging the behaviours that we see and happen most often. These are the types of behaviours that the law is sometimes slow to respond to, such as misogyny, stalking, cat calling and groping.

We can challenge those social norms by creating the conditions where people have courage and feel safe to speak up. We can start to empower people by helping them to find their voice earlier. We can educate our young people by being good role models and we can validate survivors by telling them this is not your fault.

In conclusion, it is important that we have these discussions about gender-based violence and not let the cloak of silence prevail in this space. I’m confident that by having the moral courage, our society will start to see a shift. All it will take is for all people to do something. I’m prepared to take a lead, who would like to help me?


John Finnigan, Student Wellbeing Adviser
Directorate of Academic and Student Affairs