16 days of activism | Bystander intervention

We are mindful that some readers may find this story triggering.  Students and staff who would like support, or wish to find more information about keeping safe, please visit our website or find a local student support contact. 

Marking the annual United Nations 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign, the #WhatWillYouDo campaign runs throughout Scotland from 25 November to 10 December. Student Services team member Lorna Ferguson talks about this year’s theme and encourages everyone to think about being part of the solution to help to end violence against women and girls.

Last year we teamed up with organisations across the Highlands and Islands to ask people to share what they would like to see change for women and girls in our rural communities. This year, we are calling on everyone to be the change:

Would you intervene if you saw someone being harassed or in danger?  Would you know how?   

Bystander intervention involves being able to recognise a potentially harmful situation or interaction and choosing to respond in a way that could positively influence the outcome.   

At some point in our lives, we will be a bystander to events like these, and when we do, we have two choices: 

  • To safely step in and say or do something to stop it – be an active bystander.
  • Or to simply let it go – be a passive bystander. 

Learning how to recognise the signs that someone is in danger and knowing how to intervene safely, is an essential skill that we all can own and use.  

Intervention could be anything from not laughing at a sexist joke, talking to a friend about their behaviour or interrupting or distracting someone whose behaviour is causing others distress. By intervening in a situation, we are signalling to the perpetrator that their behaviour is unacceptable, and if we reinforce these messages as a community, we can help make a shift in the boundaries of what is considered acceptable and can help to stop problem behaviour. 

Sometimes this might mean researching online support and contacts available or asking for help from others – trained colleagues in student services and HR teams, specialist charities or even the police. 

Before you intervene, ask yourself: 

  • Can I offer my help safely?  It’s important that you never put yourself at risk.  Your safety is a priority. 
  • Could this situation be better handled if there were more people to support it?  Intervention is safer in a group, if you are not with others, report it to those who can help. 
  • Is the person open to receive or want help?  Not everyone will want someone to help them, despite how dangerous the situation may look to you.   

“As part of the curriculum, students on our hair and beauty courses are given training designed to help people in the industry recognise the signs of domestic abuse. It offers advice on how to encourage individuals to seek professional advice and provides insights into the right support agencies to direct individuals to.” – Elspeth Robertson, course leader for hair and beauty based at Lews Castle College UHI. 

How to safely intervene:  

  • Take direct action – call out negative behaviour, tell the perpetrator to stop or ask the victim if they are ok.  If the situation allows, do this as a group. Be polite and remain calm, as you don’t want to make the situation worse.  
  • Distract the perpetrator – interrupt what they are doing by starting a conversation with them, potentially allowing their target to move away from the situation.  Or you could help to get the victim out of the situation by telling them you need to speak to them, pretending that you know them can give them the opportunity to safely leave the situation. 
  • Delegate – If you don’t think it is safe to intervene or you are unsure about how to do so, engage someone else to step in.  Speak with a member of bar/venue staff and ask them to intervene if you are out socialising. 
  • Delay – Sometimes the situation is just too dangerous for you to be able to challenge there and then, and if so, you should walk away and report it as soon as it is safe to do so.  Remember, it is never too late to act, even if you are unable to do something in the moment. 

In an emergency, call the police on 999 and remember, only intervene if it is safe to do so.  Never put yourself in danger. 

The University of the Highlands and Islands is one of seventeen Scottish universities that have worked together to create an online training course to raise awareness of gender-based violence in colleges and universities. Support and more information to keep safe from gender based and sexual violence is open to anyone on our website.  

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