Bringing in the bystander

Preventing violence and abuse

LIKE MOST FORMS of cancer, violence and abuse are preventable. But why is preventing them so hard? They leave pervasive stains on communities at local, national and global levels. In a family context, they have enduring intergenerational consequences that lead to significant harms with substantial economic, social and health costs. In employment contexts, they foster abuse, bullying and harassment that do major damage to companies and employees, generating social, health and financial fallout.

Consider the schooling context. Examining the sheer scale of bullying, whether in physical, psychological or cyber forms, illuminates the scale of victimisation and the real consequences for students, which include future violence, mental health problems and enhanced suicide risk.

Consider homicide – the most extreme form of violence. Each year, approximately 250 people are murdered in Australia. The results of these harms are often too difficult to discern, but families are frequently irreparably harmed, if not broken, as a result.

But globally, our failed responses to violence and abuse far exceed our successes. Responses take the form of family-focused interventions, as well as perpetrator-focused or victim-focused approaches. Some interventions focus on the institutional context (change a school environment), some focus on the individual (treat the perpetrator) and some focus on the situation (alter environments).

The definitional and emotional challenges of violence and abuse are what often prevent our responses from having real impact. Most times, the community fails to define the violence as problematic, or chooses to ignore the situation and not intervene. This ‘It’s not my problem’ approach must be confronted. In addition, real preventative impact is constrained by the narrowly targeted approaches to violence and abuse prevention. We focus on the individual only, or the situation only. Clearly, we need another way.

We need more people involved, demonstrating collective leadership to address violence and abuse across the community.

Imagine a world where we all saw ourselves as leaders. Leaders with the capacity to inspire positive change within our own ‘spheres of influence’. If we concentrated on the way in which we could influence positive change with those people within our spheres, we could change the world. The positive effects from these ripples of change would be vast and varied. In the short term, we can be beacons of light for those around us, showing that we can model our morals and practise our values. In the long term, we can prevent violence, create safe and inclusive schools, universities, workplaces, homes and communities. This is the core concept of the MATE Bystander Program (MATE).


MATE IS A bystander intervention program derived from the successful Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program created by Dr Jackson Katz in the United States. Inspired by the work of women before him, Katz realised that men’s violence against women was widely considered by most people to be a ‘women’s issue’. He realised that in order for change to occur, the discussion needed to not only include men but be embraced by men. In 1993, MVP was created, aimed at the sporting culture in the US. It then expanded to colleges, the military and other male-dominated spaces, resonating in these environments and inspiring action. It was the first program of its kind to include the bystander approach. The bystander approach to violence prevention brings everyone into the conversation and shows us all how we can be leaders in preventing violence and problematic behaviour. MVP has gone on to become one of the most widely used and well-known bystander programs in the world, and one of the first stages of its global expansion included Australia. 

In 2010, Shannon Spriggs Murdoch joined Griffith University to lead the prevention arm of its Violence Research and Prevention Program (VRPP). Murdoch had been one of the lead MVP consultants in the US working directly for Katz. Griffith’s VRPP aims to increase knowledge and understanding of the causes, consequences, prevention and control of violence. Given the lack of a focus on bystander approaches to violence prevention in Australia at that time, Shannon’s arrival represented an important opportunity for the university to bring real substance to the prevention arm of the VRPP. MVP was immediately implemented as a key primary prevention component of the program under Shannon’s leadership, with the Australian version of the program – MATE – introduced in 2016. MATE kept the original foundations consistent while allowing Australian participants to apply it to real-life scenarios and situations in an appropriate cultural context. The new focus was ‘Motivating Action Through Empowerment’.

In the two years since the development of MATE, it has gone from strength to strength as people have become aware of an Australian program with a strong evidence base that addresses problems such as domestic and sexual violence. Thanks to the work of Dame Quentin Bryce on the Not Now, Not Ever report in Queensland, the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria and the seemingly endless stories of women experiencing violence or death at the hands of men in Australia, people were desperate to hear and talk about solutions.

The beauty of MATE is that it offers such solutions – not at the macro-level that includes refuges for victims of violence, or prisons and programs for perpetrators, but rather at the personal and societal level, which brings us all into the conversation and teaches us how we are, mostly unknowingly, contributing to a culture of violence through gender stereotypes, language, objectification of women and victim blaming and shaming. MATE identifies the link between gender inequality and gender-based violence, and that is the most unique part of the program. This association allows us to consider the long-term cultural change that will bring about a solution to this problem through addressing core attitudes, beliefs and assumptions that support the behaviour that helps to uphold the violence. Importantly, it tells us what we, as individuals, as humans, can do about it once we recognise it.

Using the concept of personal leadership, the MATE program encourages people to think about the ways in which they influence those around them. We all have the choice about whether we are going to be positive leaders, or not-so positive leaders – what we don’t have a choice in, however, is whether we are leaders at all. We are all leaders, and we decide how we use that leadership. Once we start to understand this, and that we all have the capacity to effect change through our own individual spheres of influence, we can recognise that change is possible via effective personal leadership and bystander behaviour.

The bystander approach in MATE includes a conversation about the many reasons why bystanders often fail to intervene or, to put it bluntly, do nothing. What stops us from moving through the stages of intervention and choosing to do something in a situation of violence or problematic behaviour? Everything from diffusion of responsibility to social and cultural norms is explored in the program. By delivering MATE to diverse populations all over Australia, the anecdotal evidence from participants about the way their gender, race, knowledge, past and assumptions influence their behaviour has allowed the program to evolve so it includes this critical knowledge and allows participants to understand their own personal obstacles to intervening. Most importantly, through the bystander intervention approach, participants find an intervention option that feels safe and appropriate to them. The framework transcends social and cultural barriers – when personal leadership is enacted, it gives people the tools to navigate psychological barriers. Fear for one’s physical safety is one of the most common obstacles to intervention. MATE provides opportunities to discuss the ways in which this fear is perpetuated by the media, by personal experience and by social factors. The feeling of fear as a bystander is a normal, physiological human response and cannot be ignored. However, fear can become debilitating for a bystander when they believe that personally and directly intervening in a dangerous situation is their only option. The framework provides a myriad of other options that takes that fear out of the equation.

The line between bystander action and inaction can, for some, be in knowing what messages ‘doing nothing’ sends. Inaction sends clear messages to the person committing the violence that they won’t be called on their behaviour. It sends a message to the person experiencing the violence that no one is there to help them. It sends a message to other bystanders that it is acceptable to do nothing. When we couple this knowledge with the knowledge that we have people within our spheres of influence looking to us for leadership – be it our children, partners, friends, work colleagues, parents, siblings, the people we interact with at the gym or the person who makes us our daily coffee – we start to see that doing nothing is no longer an option.

One of the most challenging aspects of this education is what we have named the ‘unlearning’ process. In order to create a movement, a culture, of effective bystanders willing to intervene in violence and problematic behaviour, we first need to unlearn a number of lessons society has taught us. Lessons such as ‘Mind your own business’, ‘Keep your nose out of other people’s relationships’, ‘What happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors’, ‘Don’t get involved in other people’s problems’, ‘You could make it worse’ or ‘You could get hurt yourself’. Again, the personal leadership concept forces participants to challenge this conditioning and reminds them that the new lesson to learn, if they are committed to preventing violence against women, is ‘If this is happening in my school, workplace, home, neighbourhood, community – it is my business.’ The thought process moves from ‘This has nothing to do with me’ to ‘This is my responsibility.’ The next step is determining what to do.

Most people believe that doing something requires them to be confrontational or to stand in harm’s way. However, once the bystander intervention framework is explored, participants learn about other ways in which they can intervene that are less confrontational, and that are appropriate regardless of personal attributes, personal obstacles or personalities in general. Creating dialogue around simple options – calling the police, reporting the behaviour to security, creating a diversion or showing support after the incident – is an eye-opening aspect of the program that teaches participants about other, indirect ways to intervene. These indirect ways all require very little personal investment, yet still send a clear message that the behaviour will not be tolerated. Non-confrontational options are extremely useful for most people, who are, for various reasons, afraid to get involved personally. This is particularly evident, and understandably so, in cases of bystanders to domestic violence.

Anecdotal evidence tells us that people don’t get involved in domestic violence situations as bystanders not because of apathy, but because of two main factors: not having the knowledge of the problem that allows them to recognise the signs of abuse, and not knowing what to do if they are able to recognise those signs. The MATE program covers both those factors in detail – particularly focusing on the non-physical signs of abuse and the power and control dynamic that drives gender-based violence – in order for bystanders to recognise an issue requiring intervention. Physical violence does not exist in a vacuum – there is a whole host of behaviours leading to and supporting the use of physical violence. For some people, this is the first time they have heard the way in which power and control manifests and moves a relationship from healthy to unhealthy, and this is a significant point in bystander education. Engaging participants in dialogue from a bystander perspective gives them a space to imagine how someone experiencing or using power and control would present to them in a conversation as a colleague, friend or loved one. The real-life application is paramount to this education, and leads to the second factor of knowing how to approach the situation as a bystander. Providing participants with the tools to offer support or respectfully hold people accountable for their actions grows bystander confidence.

However, this type of intervention is only one part of the program – its primary prevention aspect is understanding the underlying drivers of this violence so that we can create long-term cultural change. Primary prevention is the ultimate goal of the MATE program. By recognising the link between gender inequality and violence against women, participants can start to see the ways in which violence is endorsed in some aspects of Australian culture and start to challenge the systems that support it.

The first concept explored is rigid gender stereotypes. While we unpack these stereotypes through the binary lens, the conversation certainly shows us that those who live outside the traditional binaries are often considered ‘less than’ than the stereotypical male and female. These social constructs inherently give all the power to one gender and, very quickly, through interactive dialogue and a visual activity, we see the layers of oppression start to become apparent. We can then explore in great detail, using examples from different mediums and popular culture, the ways in which these gender stereotypes are perpetuated through language, song lyrics, advertising, inequalities in sport and the gender pay gap. Highlighting the gender inequality that fosters a disrespect for women and therefore sets the necessary social context for violence-supportive attitudes is the ‘lightbulb moment’ for many MATE participants. Through effective bystander behaviour, and with the knowledge that these stereotyped constructs of masculinity and femininity are one of the main drivers of violence against women, participants start to understand the changes they can implement in their daily lives to challenge these stereotypes and promote a more equitable and just society.

Creating a space for dialogue allows participants to explore everyone’s perspectives – those who fit within the traditional binaries, those who are conditioned to believe they do and those who know they don’t – and how this impacts the way they move through society. It is as a result of these conversations that we believe true change can occur. By defying unwritten yet deeply ingrained social and sexual norms, everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability or ethnicity, can contribute to a society where they feel valued and equal for nothing else than what they bring to the world as a human being. The feeling of acceptance and inclusiveness, and the desire to deconstruct the systems that promote power and control, oppression and privilege, are a byproduct of the MATE program. Participants leave the room feeling empowered, steadfast in their commitment to social justice and inspired to create change. The long-term outcome of this? Truly safe, respectful and violence-free societies, and a future where every human is equal.


CHALLENGING SOCIAL AND cultural norms is not easy. It requires a movement: many people committed to the cause, to facing the things that may seem subtle or harmless, but that are in fact the normalised behaviours that contribute to a culture of violence. This movement of bystander empowerment has been vital to the success of MATE, and it comprises people who are passionate about positive change. Through mobilising this message, we have heard stories of past participants challenging their husbands for using terms such as ‘wife-beater’ to describe an item of clothing. We have heard women admit to dropping the use of words such as ‘bitch’, as they now recognise that this word (and others like it) contributes to the disempowerment of women. We have heard men in male-dominated workspaces admit that their water-cooler jokes are not appropriate, and they need to stop telling them. We have seen workplaces – one a prison – update their policies to support bystander reporting. We have spoken to university students who have set their own protocols when it comes to sexual harassment in order to challenge behaviour that may once have gone unchecked. We have spoken to men who have challenged their peers when they have used the term ‘gay’ as an insult. We have heard of places, including one part of the Australian Defence Force, auditing the music played in their common areas to ensure the lyrics are respectful. And countless other participants can now recognise signs of an abusive relationship. So while it may not be easy to effect this kind of change, it is possible; more importantly, it is worth it.

Another important future focus for the MATE program is its adaptability to other forms of violence and abuse. Imagine the impact of this unique approach to prevention being applied to the numerous manifestations of violence and abuse that take place across the community.

The core principles of MATE are clear. Once we know better, we do better. And if not us, who? If not now, when? We can’t wait for legislation, policy, politicians or systems to save us. Each of us has the capacity to enact meaningful change. To create a future free from violence requires us all to commit to personal leadership. To commit to creating a culture of respect and inclusiveness, refocusing from criminal justice to social justice by understanding that we all have a significant role to play in shaping the world we want to live in.

It’s not just about imagining a world where we are all leaders; it’s about believing in it.

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