Are you a passive or active bystander?

The Violence Against Children and Youth in Namibia Report of 2019, states that nearly 2 out of 5 females (39.6%) and males (45%) aged 18-24 years have experienced physical, sexual, and emotional violence in childhood. Moreover, both females and males experienced high rates of sexual violence: 11.8% of females and 7.3% of males ages 18-24, before turning 18 years old.

When you witness sexual harassment or violence happening to someone, what do you do? What drives you to act? Are you a passive or an active bystander? A bystander is a person who witnesses an event where, for example, poor behaviour is displayed. I believe a bystander is also the person you tell when an incident, such as sexual harassment, happens to you.

The bystander behavioural trends were initially researched in 1964, after the famous case of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender, who was stabbed outside her apartment in New York.  Two weeks after the murder, the New York Times published an article claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, but none of them called the police or helped her. Although numerous invalid testimonies in the article were discovered by the researcher, the facts on the ground cited that there were witnesses who tried to call the police. This case became pivotal in establishing a foundation for understanding bystander behaviour.

The above research (and subsequent research) found that there are two types of psychological phenomena that influence bystander behaviour. They include pluralistic ignorance and false consensus effects. According to simply psychology, “pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon refers to a situation in which virtually every member of a group privately disagrees with what is the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the group as a whole. This in turn leads to false consensus, where people conform to the thought-to-be majority opinion, even though it may not be considered just by most people”.

An example of this could be, when a person is being bullied by their manager at work. Even if you as the colleague believe what is being done to the colleague is wrong, you are reluctant to act, out of fear.  Pluralistic ignorance often inhabits the course of justice in taking place, because bystanders fail to speak up. In Namibia, bystanders often are not willing to be witnesses in gender-based violence and any other form of bullying cases. Moreover, bystanders often blame the victim and discourage them from reporting their preparators.

A person with a false-consensus effect believes his/her thoughts are appropriate, normal, and correct, but believes others who hold different believes are abnormal. An example of this, is when some men believe it is ok to make sexual advances to a lady they like, even if the feeling is not mutual. It is going to take time to de-normalise sexual harassment, but more community involvement will be required to make that paradigm shift.

What an active bystander should do.

Well, it starts with being more present and less self-absorbed. There are many things that distract us, limiting our ability to be active listeners and observants of our environment. It starts with using your phone to capture an incident where poor behaviour is being displayed, and you offering that recording to the victim, in an event they need to provide evidence to the police.

Sometimes it involves calling out bad behaviour when you are interacting with your friends. When someone makes a sexist joke, for example, you immediately call it out and tell the person why the joke is inappropriate. You should also not laugh at jokes or conversations that slut shame women, for example.

In any environment, it is important for bystanders to focus on the person targeted.  They should observe how the person looks? Ascertain whether they look uncomfortable? Establish whether they are trying to escape or move away. If none of the questions can be answered through your observation, then directly ask the victim (don’t look or focus on the perpetrator) if he/she is fine. Ensure that you don’t make the situation more dangerous, unsafe, or disempowering to those who are trying to assist.

What active bystander should not do.

An active bystander doesn't always directly confront the perpetrator. Nor is he/she required to report the incident to the police or manager. In some cases, the victim might not want the police involved, out fear of further being discriminated, especially if where he/she was involved is deemed illegal. It also does not mean you respond with violence or display poor behaviour towards the preparator. It does not mean you are allowed to hurl offensive language to the perpetratr either. Lastly, it is not impressing your views on the victim. You need to empower a victim to act, but in the manner he/she feels comfortable. 

To conclude, there is an adage that says mind your own business. Rightly so, however, when someone is in danger, your indirect or direct involvement could save their life. The Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality cannot be achieved by government alone. Nor can it be achieved by having rigorous protective mechanisms and systems in place. You, reading this article, can also do something without directly confronting the perpetrator.  You just need to learn to distract, direct and delegate.

*Morna Ikosa is a seasoned communications and stakeholder engagement consultant. With a specific affinity for sustainable development and is a certified workplace violence and sexual harassment expert. Find her on LinkedIn or email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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