Bystander Action for Domestic Violence: What You Can Do To Help

Amnesty International India
2 May 2020 4:09 pm

Read this blog in Hindi or Marathi. 

Currently, with a nation-wide lockdown in India, many women are locked in with their abusers with nowhere to go. As per the National Commission for Women and news reports, there has been a distinct increase in cases of domestic violence due to the lockdown.

This is seen not just in India, globally more and more women are reporting domestic violence. UN Women has deemed violence against women and girls as a ‘shadow pandemic’ to the novel coronavirus. Nations like France have actively taken measures to curb violence and get women the help they need. The National Commission for Women in India has launched a WhatsApp number (+91 7217735372) to facilitate faster and increased reporting, taking cognizance of the increase in violence.

Right now, when it is hardest for victims to get help, it is important for us as a community to step forward and help women. Bystander action can not only stop violence but also give victims the confidence to report.

If you witness domestic violence in your home or your neighbourhood or know a friend, colleague or acquaintance who may be a victim, YOU can rise up to take action. Here are some Frequently Asked Questions that may help you:


1. What is Domestic Violence?

In simplified terms, under Indian Law, domestic violence is the act or threat of the following:

  • Physical abuse [causing any bodily pain or harm]
  • Mental, Verbal & Emotional abuse [insults, ridicule, humiliation, name-calling, threats]
  • Economic abuse [depriving someone of all or any economic or financial resources]
  • Sexual abuse [abuses, humiliation, degrading or violating the dignity of a woman]


2. What is Bystander Action?

Bystander Action can take many forms. It is the action taken by someone who is not directly involved in a situation of abuse, to speak out about, identify, engage or respond to a case of domestic violence.


3. What can I do as a bystander?

As a Bystander, you can:

  • Reach out to the victim as a friend: Ask the victim if she needs help, wants to talk or wants to report.
  • Make eye-contact: Show her that you are there to help. Show the abuser that you are a witness to what is occurring.
  • Create a Distraction: Ring the doorbell or call the person to diffuse the situation.
  • Call 181/100: Seek permission/consent of the victim and call for help.
  • Ask how you can help: Do they need medical aid, counseling or a safe place to live? Ask and get help if you can.
  • Reach out to someone else: Find someone whose intervention can be more effective, a family elder, local women’s group etc. and request for their help.
  • Set boundaries: Do not make excuses for the abuser or otherwise enable them. Express your true beliefs on the matter openly and honestly.

You can download our poster on bystander action and share it widely. Download now in: 

English.  Kannada. Hindi.  Tamil.  Marathi. 

4. Can I report a case of domestic violence even if I am not the victim?

Yes, any person who genuinely believes that there has been an incident of domestic violence or there exists a threat of domestic violence, can report. It is preferable to take the consent of the victim before reporting. Keep in mind that the victim may have to bear the consequences or can be further put at risk if the authorities are alerted without her consent.  That being said, violence against women is a criminal offence and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.


5. What are the laws against domestic violence?

There are 2 main laws that one can rely on to protect against domestic violence:

  • Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

The Act protects women in the household (wives, live-in partners, sisters, mothers, daughters, widows) from husband and/or male relatives. It seeks to protect a woman’s right to live in a violence-free home. This is a civil law and the Act recognizes a woman’s right to residence and her right to obtain protection orders from the court to prevent domestic violence from occurring. It cannot be enforced criminally, that is, there is no punishment or fine imposed on the abuser through this act. However, anyone who violates the order given by the court can be punished.

  • Indian Penal Code, 1860

Under the Indian Penal Code, Section 498-A specifically protects married women from cruelty by their husbands and husband’s family. Additionally, other sections of the law protect women in cases of rape, assault, sexual harassment, acid attacks, stalking, voyeurism, and forcefully disrobing a woman. However, it is important to note here that marital rape is still not recognised by the law and cannot be prosecuted.


6. Domestic Violence is a private matter, why should I even intervene?

While it may seem like domestic violence is a private scandal or family affair, it is not. Instead, it is a human rights violation that requires intervention to help break the cycle of violence. Through Bystander Action, one can:

  • Create a support network and give confidence to the victim that she is not alone and that she can seek help from neighbours when she needs it the most.
  • Stop a specific incident from taking place
  • Reduce the risks of violence escalation
  • Prevent the physical, psychological and social harms that result from such violence
  • Strengthen the mechanisms/authorities that work to prevent domestic violence
  • Compile reliable and accurate data disaggregated by sex, age, disability, ethnicity, and indicating the family relationship of the survivors and perpetrators at a local level.


7. What else can I do for the victim/survivor?

It is best to ask the survivor how you can help her. Apart from this, ask local women’s rights organizations for resources as well as ways in which you can help a survivor. If the person needs a place to stay try to help with making arrangements at a women’s shelter and help with taking them there. If the case is brought before a magistrate, be willing to provide testimony based on your experience with the survivor.


8. What should I do if the victim/survivor is hurt?

If you see that a survivor has visible marks of physical abuse, offer to take her to the doctor. With her consent, assist with taking photos of the marks. You can go to both private and public hospitals for first aid. Please make sure that you ask the hospital administration for a medico-legal certificate. It is the survivor’s right to receive a medico-legal certificate and will act as an official record of the injuries sustained by the survivor.


9. How should I ensure my own safety when confronting an abuser?

If you decide to confront an abuser, make sure to remember the following:

  • Avoid using violence and threats at all costs
  • Understand your own limitations and do not try to do something you feel unsure about doing. Respond only in a manner that you feel comfortable in.
  • Recruit others to help if necessary
  • Plan what you would like to do and practice what you want to say
  • Conduct conversations in a safe environment


10. What can I do if the abuser threatens to use violence on me?

If the situation gets too serious and the abuser threatens you, call the police immediately.


11. What legal proof is required to prove a case of domestic violence?

While certain forms of Domestic Violence is hard to prove, evidence that can be submitted as proof of abuse are – emails, WhatsApp conversations, text messages, audio/ video/ call recordings, and screenshots of persistent missed calls which indicate bad treatment or an abusive relationship.

In addition, records of previous helpline calls or police reports can also be submitted as evidence. In the case of physical abuse, a medico-legal certificate and photographs of bruises/cuts/bodily harm can be provided. While eyewitness testimony is difficult to obtain in cases of domestic violence, if someone knows of the abuse or has witnessed the abuse taking place, they can present their testimony.


12. What if the person does not want to be helped, what can I do then?

It can be hard for victims/survivors of domestic violence to discuss the abuse they are facing. There is stigma attached to these situations and many victims are economically dependent on their abusers. It is possible that the person may deny the problem or avoid any conversation about it. If that is the case, respect her privacy and do not take action on her behalf or force her to take action if she is not ready. This may be difficult if you feel that she or her children will be hurt. She has to make the decision herself and in her own time. At the same time, remove the stigma attached to women survivors of violence and encourage them to seek redress. Make sure that you let her know that you are there to help and support her if and when she decides to talk or take action.


13. Is domestic violence ever the victim/survivor’s fault?

No, domestic violence is not the victim’s fault. Domestic violence is a crime. The woman facing violence may decide on her own or with help, to get out of such a situation. However, it is possible that a survivor of domestic violence may not have the support or confidence to do so. She may also have no options or choices available to her to leave the cycle of abuse. There are several reasons for why a survivor does not leave a situation of abuse – she may be economically/financially dependent on the abuser, she may not have other support networks (family/friends) to rely on, if there are children involved, she may fear worse consequences of leaving the abuser, etc.

Presently, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, survivors are distanced from external help and in lockdown with violent partners. They may not have the means to leave a situation of abuse. Even in ordinary times, domestic violence is under-reported.  The pandemic has further restricted the options for the women facing abuse at home. It is important to believe a survivor of domestic violence and not pass judgement because that can leave her feeling ostracised, further discouraging her to break the cycle of abuse.


14. The law on domestic violence is not gender-neutral and only protects women, but others can also face domestic violence, why is there this special focus?

While domestic violence can affect anyone, irrespective of their gender, the answer is well put by Renuka Choudhury, Minister of Women and Child Development, 2006, around the time of enactment of the law – “an equal gender law would be ideal. But there is simply too much physical evidence to prove that it is mainly the woman who suffers at the hands of man”. Keeping this reality in mind, it is necessary to have a domestic violence law that protects women specifically. At this stage, a gender-neutral law would do more harm than good.

Written by Nayantara Raja, Campaigner, Gender and Identity-based Violence, Amnesty International India.

Featured image credit: Reuters | Adnan Abidi