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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 11/16/2009

Breaking free of bystander culture

By editors

By Linda Dunphy

Last month’s gang rape in Richmond, Calif., was appalling, frightening and, sadly, emblematic of a much broader problem. After a homecoming dance, a 15-year-old girl was raped by as many as 10 young men in front of a large number of onlookers — who did not intervene. While we may feel removed from this extreme example from across the country, every day such violence against women goes unreported and uninterrupted a great deal closer to home.

Neighbors observe clear signs of domestic violence at the house next door and do nothing. A teacher looks the other way when sexual harassment takes place in the halls of a school. College kids at a party ignore a friend plying a woman with alcohol for the purposes of nonconsensual sex. In our “mind your own business” culture, it is not uncommon for bystanders to ignore violence right in front of them. Simply by opening our eyes, we can prevent a lot of pain.

In the Washington region, domestic violence cuts across all communities and socioeconomic classes, and the strain of the economy is adding to the toll. Agencies across the area have reported an increase in cases. At Doorways for Women and Families in Northern Virginia, we are witnessing a spike in crises related to domestic violence, with a 56 percent increase in calls this year.

Almost every day we hear about an opportunity missed. A young Northern Virginia couple recently told us about seeing a man hitting a woman outside their apartment. They observed it from their window, and even discussed what to do. Ultimately, she was too scared to intervene, and he didn’t believe it was his place.

And one of our clients — an educated mother of five in Arlington — suffered 31 years of abuse before leaving her husband. She relates how isolated she became, partially by design and partially because friends and family were “too polite” to push the issue. Such stories are all too common among survivors of domestic violence.

So, what can you do to keep from being a bystander?

As a witness, it is important to remember that you may be in a stronger position to take action than the victim is. You are not under the control of the abuser, so you are in a position to step in and speak up. In a situation involving strangers, examine your own safety first. If it is safe to intervene, do it. If not, find a safe space and call the police.

If the victim is someone you know, you can express your concern. Tell her that you notice the violence, and that it’s not okay. Be prepared for her to deny the problem or be reluctant to leave the situation. But by having the conversation, you are planting a seed. She will know you are there when she’s ready to act.

One of the best places to help is the workplace. Colleagues are often in prime positions to intervene — if they are alert to the signs of trouble. Domestic violence does not stay at home; it follows its victims everywhere and manifests itself in behaviors we can recognize. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, 74 percent of battered women are harassed by their partners at work. A partner may call constantly, show up at the office, refuse to allow the woman to travel. Because work may be the only place a survivor has access to the outside world, a co-worker can make a world of difference.

Another way to intervene is as a parent or friend. Parents should learn to spot the red flags of teen dating violence, such as jealousy, emotional instability, isolation and, of course, physical abuse. Talking to your teen can save a life. Many local nonprofits — including ours — offer seminars for parents and workplace training.

In Virginia, a coalition of advocates and colleges has come together to create the Red Flag Campaign to address dating violence on campuses. Locally, Doorways and other nonprofits have partnered with colleges such as George Mason and Marymount universities to educate young adults. By hosting brown-bag discussions, training and other outreach activities, we are helping students recognize the warning signs, differentiate between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and get involved when necessary.

It’s a start. Each of us needs to be appalled. Let’s not be bystanders to last month’s horrific rape. We can learn from those who did nothing — and do something.

The writer is executive director of Doorways for Women and Families in Arlington.

By editors  | November 16, 2009; 9:45 AM ET
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