What Is the Role of a Bystander in Gender‑Based Violence?
While we might be keen to blame the recent attack on the general apathy of bystanders, it would likely be an uninformed stance.
In the national capital of Delhi, a 16-year-old girl was stabbed repeatedly in Rohini — 22 times, according to some news outlets and 16 times, according to others — while onlookers just… watched. The girl, now dead, also had her skull ruptured with a stone slab — again, as people continued to spectate upon the brutality unleashed before them in a public space. The perpetrator, allegedly the deceased’s boyfriend, even had the chance to flee the scene of the frenzied attack to Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr, where he was finally apprehended by the police.
Meanwhile, the girl succumbed to her injuries, laying crumpled on the street, before the bystanders finally called for help. “A minor girl is brutally murdered openly in Delhi. This is very sad and unfortunate. The criminals have become fearless, there is no fear of the police,” Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi, tweeted. The inaction of the spectators to a girl being stabbled, bludgeoned, and kicked forces us to confront the unfortunate state of affairs: despite bystander intervention being recognized as a valuable strategy to curb gender-based violence, its implementation in public policy — through comprehensive sensititzation and training for all — it’s implementation is far from realization.
Gender-based violence remains a pervasive issue globally, with 30% of the world’s women having experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence, according to the World Bank. To put it into perspective, that’s 736 million women we’re talking about. And this is despite almost half the women who have encountered violence thus never disclosing their experiences, preventing us from being able to accurately ascertain the extent of the heinousness women are regularly exposed to. Reports also suggest that, in 2020 alone, 81,000 women and girls were killed globally; on an average, we witnessed one death every 11 minutes.
There are possibly a million reasons why it’s not feasible to have enforcers of the law posted at every imaginable site of gender-based violence, especially given its sheer ubiquity. That’s precisely why bystander intervention — emphasizing the role of witnesses in recognizing, preventing, and intervening in potentially harmful situations — has emerged as a crucial strategy to combat the phenomenon, creating safer and more equitable communities, in the process. But let alone interventions by neighbors and relatives in private spaces, the present incident calls attention just how inept we are at stepping in even when the violence is unfolding in a busy public area, in broad daylight.
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Two years ago — yet again in Delhi’s Rohini — a man stabbed his wife to death as onlookers, well, looked. In 2018, people watched — and even shot videos — of a 14-year-old girl being stripped and molested in a crowd in Bihar, instead of coming to her aid. In 2017, women were openly harassed during the new years’ celebrations in Karnataka’s capital, Bengaluru, as the crowd, yet again, watched. Speaking to Firstpost, an 18-year-old who faced harassment that night, said, “There were people all around me who saw me struggling but they didn’t do anything to stop him. Maybe they thought that I was just pretending or that it was nothing serious, I don’t know what was going through their minds while I was struggling to escape.”
Why does this keep happening? “We are taught from a very young age not to meddle in others’ affairs. It’s easy to sit in your drawing room and have conversations on standing up for what is right. But when it comes to helping someone who is not a part of your family or friends’ circle, people tend not to intervene,” explains Dr. Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist. “Taking a stand and rocking the boat is not part of our psyche.”
But while we might be keen to blame the recent attack on the general apathy of bystanders — or “a complete collapse of the community consciousness,” as some may say — it would likely be an erroneous and uninformed stance to take. Sure, discouraging rape jokes, slut shaming, or even catcalling may be safe to do without adequate training — even though there have been multiple instances of people losing their lives in their attempts to stop gender-based violence. Clearly, then, without being educated on effective de-escalation strategies and equipped with the skills to react appropriately, intervening in an attack as aggressive as the one that transpired in Rohini, could significantly jeopardize one’s personal safety, forcing them to reconsider, no matter how badly they might want to stop the violence.
This is where the responsibility of the state comes in. Addressing these barriers requires a concerted effort to prioritize bystander intervention training within public-policy frameworks. From the 3D’s model of “Direct, Delegate, and Distract” to “Hollaback,” strategies exist to diffuse violence against women. But rather than disseminating knowledge about bystander intervention and fostering a culture of empathy, responsibility, and consent that ensures the safety of our people, we have created a culture where couples are thrashed for being affectionate in public.
What states could do, instead, is collaborate with feminist organizations, experts, and community stakeholders to develop comprehensive guidelines for bystander intervention and allocate sufficient resources to support its integration into public policy. After all, empowering individuals with the knowledge and skills to recognize and respond to instances of violence not only helps survivors but also fosters safer communities where violence is actively challenged and prevented.
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.