Tackling violence against women

Dr Gill Harrop, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, explores the issue of gender-based violence and looks at what it means to be an active bystander.

When The Guardian published a UN survey on the 10 March 2021, revealing that 97% of women aged 18-24 had experienced sexual harassment, there was little collective shock among women.


Because this is our lived experience – virtually every woman has experienced problematic behaviour from men, from catcalls when out jogging, to being groped on a night out, or the partner who demands regular photos whenever you’re away from them, in order to prove that you are where you said you’d be.

Women are taught from a young age that it’s our responsibility to spot the risks and protect ourselves from harm, whether that means holding our keys between our fingers as we walk home, not walking alone in the dark, not drinking too much… The list of ‘don’ts’ goes on and on, and the upshot is that the blame ends up being placed firmly on women to keep ourselves safe, rather than on the perpetrators of the violence.

"The responsibility is on all of us to call out problematic behaviour, not just those affected by it."

The tragic case of Sarah Everard, who disappeared while walking home through Clapham Common on the 3rd March, highlighted this. It took only minutes after her disappearance was reported in the press for questions to appear online about why she was walking on her own at night, as if she was somehow to blame for what happened to her.

The public outcry to Sarah’s case, and the rejection of the victim blaming surrounding it have sent a clear message: women and girls want to be safe from abuse or harassment, and stop the victim blaming. We need to shift the focus from the victim’s actions to instead look at the perpetrators’ behaviour and the violent actions that they chose to take.

But of course, this cannot just be a women’s problem. It has to be raised and discussed by men as well, in order to acknowledge the problem and commit to stepping up and speaking out against misogyny, violence and abuse. The responsibility is on all of us to call out problematic behaviour, not just those affected by it.

Our Bystander Intervention Programme

At the University of Worcester, we are committed to tackling violence and abuse through our Bystander Intervention Programme. This 8-hour programme is offered to all students, and trains participants to spot domestic violence, coercive and controlling behaviour and sexual violence. Students are encouraged to intervene when they spot these problematic behaviours and in doing so, become active bystanders.

"Being an active bystander can take many forms, allowing everyone to intervene safely and in a way that feels comfortable to them."

Many students come onto the programme thinking that in order to be an active bystander, they have to directly intervene in a situation and call out a perpetrator, but we emphasise the wide range of ways in a which they can actually help, either directly or indirectly. This might mean calling out a friend for misogynistic comments on a WhatsApp chat, or asking security staff in a bar to check on an intoxicated woman who is being led away by an unknown person. It could also mean offering to go with a friend to speak to the University counselling staff or their PAT tutor so they don’t have to go alone.

Being an active bystander can take many forms, allowing everyone to intervene safely and in a way that feels comfortable to them. Taking the time to call out someone’s problematic behaviour or check if someone is okay can just take a minute but can make a massive difference to that person’s experience.

Students on the bystander programme also learn about the link between what is ‘just a joke’ and violence. If you would stop your friend from sexually harassing someone in a bar, you should also challenge the ‘joke’ they made earlier in the evening where the punchline ends with rape or misogyny. If you would stop your friend from following a woman home after night out, then also challenge them about the demeaning comments they made in a WhatsApp message about a female sports team.

Being an active bystander doesn’t mean deciding which parts of problematic behaviour you are okay with, but instead committing to call out all problematic behaviour regardless of who the perpetrator is.

Several hundred students have already completed the University of Worcester Bystander Programme, and the feedback has been extremely positive, with the most common feedback being that all students should do the programme.

A two-year evaluation (Harrop & Taylor-Dunn, 2021) found that attending the programme significantly increased student’s confidence around being an active bystander and increased likelihood of intervening against violence and abuse. It also significantly reduced levels of hostile and benevolent sexism, and significantly reduced victim blaming. These findings suggest that bystander intervention training is an effective tool to tackle violence and abuse, by creating a culture where people learn to recognise problematic behaviour and are willing to step up and speak out against it.

While the events of the last two weeks have highlighted the huge amount of work that still needs to be done to tackle the issue of violence against women and girls, we’re incredibly proud that our Bystander Intervention Programme can be part of this, and will continue to work towards a future that is free of violence and abuse.


If you would like further information about the University of Worcester Bystander Programme, please contact Dr Gill Harrop on g.harrop@worc.ac.uk