As a bystander to domestic violence, here are ways you can help

A few years ago, I found myself in a situation where a woman was being abused and, as a woman myself, I was too scared to help.

I lived in the quiet section of a big township in Gauteng. My living space was in a communal set up, with several tenants sharing a house that had a total of eight rooms, plus a garage.  The tenants were a variety of people. Most of us were single women, some were single mothers with their kids and others were couples. This story is about a couple that had just moved into one of the backrooms that were not attached to the main house.

My room was in the main house and one of my windows faced the backrooms. I had been away for a few days, but on my first night back I remember hearing the new couple sitting outside next to their door, talking and laughing. The next day, one of the tenants that I was close to came to visit me. She told me that while I had been away the new couple had caused a scene fighting outside. The guy eventually dragged the woman to their room, where the commotion continued for some time. She said that no one intervened as everyone was so shocked: stuff like that had never happened here. I struggled to believe this was happening, having just seen the couple sitting outside and laughing with each other.

A few days later, I remember it was a Sunday evening, I heard a male voice from one of the backrooms. Even though I couldn’t make out the words, his voice was clearly raised in anger. Shortly after that, I started to hear vibrations and it sounded as if something or someone was being hit against a wall, repeatedly. The backrooms were standalone, so for me to feel some type of vibration, I knew a lot of force was being used. Now a female voice could be heard, but she was not loud enough for me to hear her words.

This went on for about 10 minutes, and that’s when I started to feel like I needed to do something. I thought of calling the police, but I didn’t have the local police station contact. The vibrations and the voices continued until the woman screamed, “Aah, wan’gkubatsa!!” (You are hurting me!!). I nearly jumped out of my skin. I considered knocking on their door, but I was scared that he would come out and beat me up too. I also thought about calling the landlord, even though he didn’t live with us, because I felt he needed to know. At this point, the woman was outright screaming in agony.

The next thing I heard was the door of the main house being opened. I could hear people dragging their shoes as they headed toward the backrooms – deliberately making noise. Then a loud conversation started outside. It was two lady tenants, talking loudly about random things; their plans for the next day, difficult clients – both of them worked in sales. They were having this conversation right outside the door where the abuse was taking place. The vibrating stopped, and quickly after so did the voices. The two ladies continued talking for about 20 minutes. I was so proud of them for coming up with that idea.

This is an experience that stayed with me. Whenever I thought about it, I asked myself what I could have done to assist.

One day, I came across the concept of bystander intervention. A bystander is a person who witnesses or sees a specific action or event without being the direct actor in that event. A bystander can be passive or active. I was passive as I did nothing to help, but my other roommates were active as they were able to provide a distraction.

Before you choose to become actively involved in a situation like the one I witnessed, I learned that it’s important to consider how best to intervene without placing yourself in danger or causing more danger to the person being abused. There are some bystander intervention techniques, called the 4Ds, that you can use. These are: direct intervention, when you directly step in to stop the abuse; distraction, what my roommates did when they went outside and started talking; delegation, telling someone in authority that can defuse the situation; and delay, when you check in with the victim afterwards to see if they are okay and if you can help.

Domestic violence is rife in our society. The conversations often centers around the abuser and the abused, as it should. But perhaps a new conversation ought to be introduced, one that centers around how as a society we can intervene, including by working with relevant authorities.

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