The hidden issue that is everyone’s business – Empowering bystanders against domestic abuse

By Bryony Parry, Wales Violence Prevention Unit 

Domestic abuse is a major public health, human rights and criminal justice concern, costing the UK an estimated £66 billion every year.  

Despite its chronicity, the prevalence and impact of domestic abuse has recently been highlighted by leaders, institutions and the media, both in the UK and globally, as being the ‘shadow pandemic’ during COVID-19. 

The pandemic’s associated social restrictions undoubtedly exacerbated conditions for domestic abuse to occur, with Wales’ Live Fear Free Helpline reporting a 41% increase in contacts between April 2020 and February 2021.  Loss of employment, stress, alcohol and drug use increased1, whilst access to support, both formal and informal, was stripped away with the introduction of quarantine and social isolation measures.  

Prevention is essential for the elimination of domestic abuse, and prevention relies on everybody being part of the solution. Empowering bystanders to take action is one of many powerful tools to ensure perpetrators are recognised as such, and importantly that victims/survivors get support.  

In its research ‘Bystander Experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse during the COVID-19 Pandemic2, the Wales Violence Prevention Unit3 sought to understand how people’s responses to witnessing or having concerns about domestic abuse and its warning signs had been altered by social restrictions. Domestic abuse is often a crime perpetrated behind closed doors, yet the pandemic restrictions meant that whilst victims lost access to vital support networks, other people in physical or online proximity to victims may have had new opportunities to take action.  

The research found that the circumstances of the pandemic allowed bystanders to become aware of domestic abuse, with coercive controlling behaviours causing most concern among participants. Importantly, this pilot study found that feeling connected to their community was a significant predictor of the bystander taking prosocial action in response to the behaviour that had caused them concern.  

Further research by the Wales Violence Prevention Unit has explored What Works to Prevent Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (VAWDASV)4. This systematic evidence assessment found strong evidence for the effectiveness of bystander training programmes for the prevention of domestic abuse. For example, the Bystander Initiative, which has been piloted at Welsh universities by Welsh Women’s Aid, has been effective at increasing students’ knowledge of sexual violence and domestic abuse, with knowledge changing their attitudes toward these issues. Following training, students are also more aware of strategies to intervene and were more confident in doing so5

The prevention of domestic abuse is seen as an increasingly critical and feasible component to tackle this major societal issue. Engaging and encouraging bystanders to act when they witness or have concerns about domestic abuse is not only an effective method of addressing domestic abuse, but also an effective and adaptable method of domestic abuse prevention.

This was released as part of our domestic violence conference, “When home is where the hurt is: understanding and responding to domestic abuse“.