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Domestic abuse and the bystander

5 May 2022

Domestic abuse and the bystander

Together we can end domestic violence

Words Petra Jenkins

The bystander effect is a phenomenon where the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in crisis. In an emergency event, community members are more likely to act if few or no other people are around. When part of a large group or crowd, the likelihood of an individual intervening and assisting is reduced as we will often defer responsibility to others. 

So, what does this have to do with domestic abuse? We’ve all heard the saying ‘hiding in plain slight’. This is a perpetrator’s playbook. Coercive control 101. 

There has never been a more important time for the bystander than now. The pandemic has made victim-survivors of domestic and family violence more invisible than ever. Services are reporting a decrease in referrals and a change in help-seeking behaviour. There are fewer safe exit options, reduced operating hours, reduced refuge capacity, and critical frontline staff shortages. 

Over the past two years, domestic violence incidents in NSW increased by 9.8 per cent, combined with more complex forms of violence occurring. Risks to victim-survivors increased dramatically as the impact of social distancing measures affected the ability of victims to seek help. 

We are now seeing a sharp rise in referrals. For many women, the pandemic coincided with the onset or escalation of violence and a marked increase in coercive and controlling behaviour as they spent more time at home with the perpetrator. 

What does this mean for women, children and individuals experiencing or at risk of domestic abuse? It means it is time for the bystander to step up. To show up. To speak out. But how can we do this so that the victim-survivor is not at risk? 


Research has shown that constructive bystander action has a proven impact on effecting real change in preventing violence. Societal attitudes shift as more people call out dangerous, controlling, and abusive behaviour. 

The important thing to remember is how to intervene safely for all parties involved, including the perpetrator. Often what is thought of as providing help and protection for the recipient of abusive behaviour can have the opposite effect when the perpetrator is alone with their partner. Their feelings of shame and embarrassment at being called out for their behaviour, made worse if in front of others, may have a backlash for the victim-survivor as the offending partner attempts to reassert their dominance, power, and control.


Bystanders, of course, want to help and not make the situation worse, so what can be done to mitigate this? The first step is to assess the environment. Is the person’s safety immediately at risk? If so, then call 000.

A more common approach, however, will be to talk privately with the victim-survivor. Express your concerns by saying you’ve been worried about them. Listen without judgment and validate their feelings. If they don’t want to talk, then let them know that you’ll be there for them if they ever do want to.

Education is also a powerful tool. Learn what specialist services are available and provide this information in a safe way if the victim-survivor is open to receiving it.

You can also be a bystander in your wider community to prevent harassment and gender discrimination. When intervening safely and calling out sexual harassment, racism, or bullying, remember the four Ds – direct, distract, delegate, delay.


Direct action Call out negative behaviour, tell the person to stop, or ask the victim if they are okay. Do this as a group if you can. Be polite. Don’t aggravate the situation – remain calm and state why something has offended you. Stick to the facts and don’t exaggerate.

Distract Interrupt, start a conversation with the perpetrator to allow the recipient of the abuse to move away, or have friends intervene. Or remove the victim physically from the situation – tell them they need to take a call, or you need to speak to them; any excuse to get them away to safety. Alternatively, try distracting or redirecting the situation. 

Delegate If you are unable to intervene yourself, ask for help. There should be zero tolerance for gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Delay If the situation is too dangerous to challenge then and there (such as there is the threat of violence or you are outnumbered), just walk away. Wait for the situation to pass, then ask the person later if they are okay. Or report it when it’s safe to do so – it’s never too late to act. 

Keep in mind bystander interventions are different for different situations. Intimate partner violence needs a considered and prepared intervention that must always keep the safety and security of the victim-survivor at the forefront. Calling out a person for wolf-whistling is vastly different to recognising the warning signs of coercive controlling behaviour in your friend’s marriage. 

Bystander intervention makes a difference. We can all be part of the solution. Preventing domestic, family, and sexual violence is everyone’s problem. It’s all genders, all ages, and all cultural backgrounds. 

Together we can make a difference and end domestic abuse. 

Petra Jenkins is State Manager – Family Violence NSW/ACT, for The Salvation Army Australia. 


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