Bystanders can become heroes with just a few simple words – Karyn McCluskey

A trip to London last week after many years away necessitated tube travel. Pressed together with the mass of humanity, snuffling and sneezing with my inevitable subsequent infection.

I always rather like the posters on the London Underground, one caught my eye, which focussed on bystander approaches when someone is being harassed on the tube. I’ve seen this happen too frequently, a group of men conversing with a woman who doesn’t want to engage, subsequent accusations of frigidity and other slurs when they don’t get the desired response.

I’ve seen solo men picked on by groups of men. All are frightening and need action. Passengers look away, focussing on the ground, not wanting to get involved in something that they feel ill-prepared to deal with – perfectly understandable.

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The poster on the tube said that if you felt safe to do so (the important bit) to engage the person being harassed, such as asking, "Do you have the time?” or “What’s the next stop?” This gives focus and distraction and may lead to the harassment reducing or stop events from escalating.

It's not a new idea, these distraction or bystander interventions. In India, brave groups of women in rural villages used to stand outside houses where they could hear domestic violence and bang pans creating an almighty din to let the abuser know he could be heard and they were standing against his actions.

It developed into a movement called Bell Bajoa (Hindi for “ring the bell”) which I came across a decade ago. The campaign urged men to act when they heard domestic abuse – to ring the perpetrator’s doorbell with a ruse, such as claiming a package had been left or suchlike. It let the abuser know that others knew what was going on, gave the woman short respite or the chance to lock herself in a bathroom and the police time to arrive (hopefully).

There are various iterations all over the world. Understandably people’s first reaction is concern for their personal safety, which is why the tube poster, Bell Bajao and other bystander programmes talk about only acting when feeling safe to do so. Evidence shows most harassers back off, and often when one person intervenes, others feel safe to join in.

The really impactful and important aspect is providing a form of words that can be used by someone to interrupt an encounter. So many people say nothing because they don’t know what to say. In a stressful situation, words often fail people. Many years ago, a man who had seen burn marks in a woman’s mouth admitted to me with great shame that he didn’t know how to mention it, so said nothing.

Posters on the London Underground explain what can be done if another passenger is being harassed (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

There are huge variations of this work happening in schools, online and in workplaces and it needs to be spread far and wide. It’s lonely and frightening to be on your own being harassed; someone who intervenes and distracts can be a lifesaver. Online can seem more sanitised than on a tube train, but it’s as real and as dangerous for the person on the receiving end.

The good Samaritan can take many forms – a heroic act can be simply the difference made by a few words in a difficult situation.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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