If I do nothing I’m saying this is ok, but I know it’s not.
What Should I Do?
We live in a Scotland where, annually, we see around 60,000 cases of domestic abuse being reported to the police. This is a ‘badge of shame’ for a society that in many areas doesn’t really acknowledge the far reaching and long-lasting impact of this form of violence. It’s distressing, but we know that these numbers will be many times higher as many victims of abuse, both men and women, do not report incidents.
With the backdrop of a continuing rise in domestic abuse in Scotland the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit began in 2011 the task of replicating the Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme (MVP) here in the Scottish High school setting. Developed in the United States by educator Dr Jackson Katz, the model used in High schools within Sioux City, Iowa, has produced very encouraging outcomes, suggesting that the model has the ability to change attitudes and promote a climate where bystanders can provide support to victims of abuse as well as safely challenging perpetrators of abuse.
The MVP programme utilises a creative bystander approach to preventing violence. We tend to focus on the end result, the physical stuff. To really prevent violence we need to start to challenge the bullying, the name calling, the sexist jokes and importantly the silence from the many people who witness the end result or who remain silent in the face of these other negative behaviours.
Let’s be clear, being a bystander is tough. A lot of the thoughts detailed above are the reason why so many people are silent when faced with such situations. We need to understand these reasons for non-intervention if we are to enable passive bystanders to become more active.
We often suggest that bystanders should not get involved. There are risks in intervening, that’s clear. However, within the MVP programme, a bystander is defined as a friend, a classmate, a team mate, a relative, a colleague. It is someone they know who is either being victimised or who is the perpetrator. We need to ask the question – 'what do friends do for each other?'. Surely at the very least they look out for one another. Also, what do we mean by intervention? To many this word describes a situation where a bystander has to get directly involved, so potentially putting themselves in harm's way. The MVP model aims to give bystanders a range of safe intervention strategies.
Let’s go back to the scenario at the start. What could you do? You could do nothing, and we have to accept that to some this is their only choice. When discussing silence within MVP we talk about what messages silence is sending out. It says to victims they are on their own and just have to accept the abuse. It tells the some men (and a few women) that their abusive behaviour is accepted, either within the circle of friends, the organisation or, worryingly, society. So silence doesn’t help, and I would go further and suggest silence is the infection that allows the abuse to continue.
Yes, you could get directly involved and put yourself in between the two. That will have consequences, some of which I have described. Remember this is happening to a friend. You have a responsibility to do something. You could shout out from a distance. This is safer; it lets the perpetrator know they are being watched. You could further distract the perpetrator by referring to something else – the weather, how bad that teacher was, anything really. This might stop the abuse and provide an opportunity later on to speak directly to either the victim or the perpetrator. This simple support for a victim could make a huge difference. It may also let the perpetrator see what they are doing is socially unacceptable and even unlawful.
The range of interventions available to a bystander are made clear during all MVP scenarios. Another major plus for using a bystander model is that boys, girls, men and women are not targeted as victims or perpetrators. Most men will suggest that, as they are not abusive, the prevention of these issues is not their responsibility. By suggesting these issues are happening to people they care about you can engage them on prevention rather than accuse them by telling a boy he should not assault his girlfriend. In simple language, you are ‘switching on’ the bystander to see a reason for getting involved. You are ‘ringing the bell’ in their head and giving them options to intervene.
Many think that a bystander model seeks to give people a list of ‘what to do options’. Whilst this is a part of it, a lot of the model attempts to address the dynamics of the issue. So in this case we ask questions like ‘why do some boys assault their girlfriends?’ or ‘why do girls who are being abused stay with their boyfriends?’. We also ask ‘what is domestic abuse' and 'what is dating violence?’. We want to get young people to identify behaviour as wrong or unhealthy.
Think about two more scenarios: a boyfriend continually sending his girlfriend text messages asking where she is and who she's with, and a boy sending an indecent image of a girlfriend. The MVP model starts to identify these behaviours as violence. Importantly, we provide a platform for friends to see that the majority of their peers hold similar healthy views. Behaviours such as bullying and sexual harassment are the pillars which, if not tackled, support the use of physical violence. They often say that violence starts with words.
The real magic of the MVP model is found in the peer-to-peer approach taken to delivering these sessions. The model recruits and trains older High school pupils with the aim that, after training, they deliver sessions to younger peers. These young leaders provide a positive role model and, as we all know, young pupils look up to older pupils in any school.
MVP Scotland recently held its first leadership summit which brought together around 90 young mentors from the schools involved in the programme. It was clear from the first day that the mentors were engaged in the work. Expectations of mentors are high and we know that talking about subjects such as dating violence, sexual harassment, bullying and ‘sexting’, are difficult. It’s safe to say, however, that these inspirational young people are up for the challenge.
As the MVP family grows - and it will - I feel that this work will become easier. What will become more difficult will be the ability of the abuser and the bully to get away with so much abuse. They will also, importantly, start to see that they are in the minority.
We are all potential bystanders. We all need to see our role in the prevention of violence.