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Bystander Intervention Under Lockdown

Image: Commonwealth Club
Written by Kirthi Jayakumar

The lockdown has placed us all indoors and this is a challenging time for the planet as a whole: and doubly so for some, more than for others. The lockdown as a policy measure to contain the spread of COVID-19 has, does, and can have different impacts on different people mainly because lived experiences, the intersection of several identity attributes, and needs and necessities are different for different people. Reports of how gender-based violence is on the rise with survivors being forced to stay indoors in toxic environments are coming in from all over the world - a very grave cause for concern in these times. 

The truth, though, is that home has never been a safe space for some - and this has been the case for many years before today. Today, the lockdown has ensured that people are to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary - but with homes being unsafe and the use of violence and control by some over some can have devastating effects that do not allow the survivors room to step out. The propensity for violence has increased with the added sense of "silence" that the lockdown has come with it. For some, existing everyday realities of violence have become all the more dangerous with the lockdown, and for still more, the lockdown has enabled violence (that may have not existed or may have existed at a smaller scale) at escalated levels.

The lockdown also means that service providers and shelters are not easily accessible – and in some places, shut down altogether. The pandemic means that those bodies that are immunocompromised are risking their lives by getting out of home – which means they are not safe anywhere – and those bodies that are marginalized and discriminated against by structural violence may be met with discrimination and even violence if they call upon structure for support.

This is a dangerous reality that is challenging several homes, literally behind closed doors. Bystander intervention is vital – except you aren’t physically a bystander when violence unfolds, although you can be an active intervener even under lockdown.

In a nutshell, bystander intervention boils down to five Ds: distract, disrupt, delay, delegate, and directly intervene. To distract is to draw the attention of the abuser and divert the focus away from the violent act so the survivor has time to escape. To disrupt is to break up the situation and diffuse the situation before it escalates. To delay is to put time between the present and the occurrence of violence either to buy time to call for help or to buy time to take the survivor away from the scene of violence. To delegate is to call on someone else to intervene: a police officer, a security guard, a service provider, a community worker, and so on. To directly intervene is to insert yourself in the situation and to take on the abuser or perpetrator. 

A basic reading suggests that physical proximity to the site of violence is a precondition for these measures to be actionable. And yet, some of these measures are actionable even during a lockdown, while maintaining social distancing, and while staying safe, yourself. Even so, it must be understood that safety is a key factor and intervening without a plan, without a clear understanding of the potential consequences of intervention, and without a firm grip on the impact it can have on yourself and on other actors involved is not advised. The following ideas have been put together in the hope that there may be some way to support a survivor in these times. 

  • Educate yourself: It is important to learn what violence looks like and what it results in, to  understand clearly what the systems, measures, and support resources around you offer, and to identify ways to reach out to them. It is important to equip yourself with information on the key concepts around intervention: the use of trauma-informed approaches (recognize, respond to, and address trauma resulting from violence), the need to prioritize empathy, compassion, respect for agency, and respect for choice - as well as the dynamics involved in choice-making. It is vital to acknowledge that violence is not formulaic or one-size-fits all: it looks different and produces different consequences for different people.  
  • Establish availability: If you are willing and open to being an active bystander, make yourself available to survivors through a few operable mediums: the phone, social media sites, email, text messages or other form of messaging platforms, and if possible, practicable, and applicable, through the window. It is important to acknowledge that the internet, phone lines, and text messaging / email are accessible only to some people and not all. Establishing channels that can be supportive to a survivor should be workable, practicable, safe, and most of all, accessible. 
  • Build community: Find likeminded individuals and establish a formidable presence that can be available for a survivor. Acknowledge that not everyone needs to be fully present at all times – but rather that each of you can be available in sprints or shifts. Establish practices and strategies, learn and engage every day, and be creative in identifying routes and solutions. 
  • Establish a resource pool: A survivor may have unique and different needs that you as an individual may not be able to cater to at all, or in part. Build a pool of resources around you: police helplines, legal help, psychosocial support, and medical support. Check in with these services to see if they are operating and understand the procedures they follow in cases of violence. Make note of those that are operating, identify travel routes and transport options to help a survivor out of their home to the shelter / support center if they decide to access it. 
  • Build a community practice: Work with your community through any channel that feels comfortable and establish a signal that you can use to call out other for support if violence takes place. For instance, hanging out a red cloth outside the door, or leaving a predetermined object outside the door / on the window ledge / hanging prominently can serve as a clever signal to help others know when to intervene, and pick from the best of means available at the time to intervene. Women in France are heading to pharmacies with code words to indicate that they're facing violence - this is another clever way to get help without having to do the emotional labour of re-traumatizing oneself while having a small window of time to report and get help. 
  • Be vigilant: Gender-based violence is seldom in your face. It often takes place, quite literally, behind closed doors. It is often difficult to know whether violence is taking place and if it is, to what extent. It is also dangerous for survivors in some instances to open up and articulate themselves on all that’s going on. This is exactly what makes it immensely tricky: it is not fair to put the onus on the survivor to have to risk a lot in the process of speaking up, and it can be devastating on a survivor if their agency is presumed in favour of reporting the violence, and if this further causes repercussions. The safest and most operable option left to bystanders is to be vigilant and watch for tell-tale signs that point to violence: sounds, raised voices, screaming, or even seeing bruises or evidence of injury.
  • Intervene safely, and when you can: Intervention does not look like a superhero crashing into a crisis to save someone: it looks like everyday things that can be implemented. For example, making a phone call to disrupt the situation, or calling the police or a crisis centre, or even – getting strangely creative here – calling for help as if something is bothering you, or even throwing a rock at the window as though to initiate a conversation from across the street. The key is to find the one linchpin that can undo the silence behind which the violence is happening. It is difficult to physically be present, but the presence of an intervening entity can be a subtle measure to break up the incident of violence, while also affirming to the survivor that they are not alone, and that they have a safe space in you.
It is entirely true that these ideas are not always operable: that there will be cases where violence will continue unabated. But that shouldn't stop us from trying or from making the efforts we need to. The world was already in the midst of a raging pandemic - epidemic, if you will - long before COVID-19: Gender-based Violence. These times are forcing the world to confront this harsh, difficult reality. We’re cut away from each other, but we need each other most in these times. Let’s find a way to stand alongside each other to get through this.

Find resources to support survivors of gender-based violence across 196 countries on Saahas in six languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish; if you can help us translate the resources into other languages, please reach out). The space also helps you learn to be an effective bystander, offers resources for survivors who have already faced violence, and also offers a safe space with some tools to cope with these challenges.