By the time Adelina Lisao received help, it was too late. The 26-year-old domestic worker passed away barely a day after she was rescued. Adelina was abused, allegedly by her employers, within the confines of their home in Bukit Mertajam, Penang.

Abuse often lurks in the shadows, behind closed doors but it is rarely a secret. Adelina’s neighbours later reported that she’d been sleeping outside on the porch with the family’s pet dog and was constantly yelled at.

The septic wounds on her arms and legs were also clear red flags.

Abuse always bears tell-tale signs and it is the social responsibility of bystanders – family, friends, neighbours or members of the public – who see and hear things that seem unusual or even suspicious to stand up and respond, says women’s rights activist Betty Yeoh.

“It’s everyone’s duty to speak up. Victims of abuse are often vulnerable and may not be able to access help. Many have no voice and so it’s our duty to be their voice and act on their behalf. “If we suspect abuse, we must report it to the relevant authorities. Even if we’re mistaken… it’s better to be proven wrong than to do nothing,” says Yeoh, a founding members of the All Women’s Action Society (Awam).

Abuse – whether perpetrated on children, spouses, the elderly or workers – is not a private matter but a community issue and requires a community response, asserts Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)’s communications officer Tan Heang-Lee.

“When bystanders speak up against abuse, we create a safer community, where abuse cannot fester. One reason why abuse happens is that the surrounding community looks away and thus the abuser gets away,” she adds.

When a community is vigilant against abuse and willing to step up for victims, there are less opportunities for perpetrators to continue their torment. Photo: 123rf

Bystander intervention can prevent abuse from happening or escalating.

“Because the abuser knows that nobody will speak out or make a report, he can continue the abuse. But if a community is vigilant and quick to call out and report abuse of any kind, perpetrators will think twice before acting,” adds Yeoh.

Recognising the signs

In order to intervene, bystanders need to be able to recognise signs of abuse, sexual harassment or assault, says Yeoh. Many people hold on to problematic beliefs and stereotypes about abuse, particularly domestic abuse, and may not see it as their “place” to step in.

“We need to educate and raise awareness so that everyone is able to recognise abusive behaviour. It should start at schools – teachers should talk to their students and teach them to recognise bad behaviour or abuse, and encourage them to talk to their teachers or counsellors if they witness or encounter such behaviour.

As responsible citizens, we have to report a crime or wrongdoing, says Yeoh.

“The government should also take the lead by running awareness programme or public service announcements on radio or TV. These are very effective in raising awareness and will reach a wider audience.

“After all, if we don’t know what constitutes abuse or harassment, we won’t be able to pick up on it, let alone report it,” says Yeoh.

Women’s Centre for Change in Penang runs workshops for teachers and students in primary and secondary schools on gender roles, child sexual exploitation and building healthy relationships. These programmes teach children respect, irrespective of gender and to recognise abusive behaviour.

The WAO runs community outreach programmes to educate communities on how to recognise and respond to abusive situations.

“Research has shown that community-based response is an effective means of curbing domestic violence. There has to be a coordinated involvement among everyone involved in responding to domestic violence – government agencies, NGOs, community leaders, family, friends, neighbours, etc. All parties must know how to recognise and respond to abuse. At the heart of this community response is the survivor … her needs and rights are most important,” says Tan.

However, time and again, in case after case, witnesses to crimes have failed to act. Last month, someone recorded a video of a young girl being molested at a fun fair in Sungai Petani, Kedah, in plain sight. But no one at the scene intervened or lodged a report.

This collective inability to act is termed the “bystander effect”, a phenomenon that came to light after the murder of 28-year-old American Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964. Genovese was stabbed 45 times in front of 38 witnesses, none of whom stepped in.

“The ‘bystander effect’ is a phenomenon where people are less likely to react when there are others around. People wait for others (to respond) as they are not sure who should take the first step. There is a diffusion of responsibility and often a mix of apathy, fear, and not knowing how to respond,” says Tan.

Choosing to intervene

People do not report abuse because of fear. They fear being a target of the perpetrator or getting dragged into court, says Yeoh.

The 63-year-old activist however points out that reports can be made anonymously.

“As responsible citizens, we have to report a crime or wrongdoing. But whistle-blowers may fear a backlash. Others are intimidated by the process of making a police report … but there are other ways to raise your concerns anonymously. You can call the welfare department or non-government organisations that deal with abuse or harassment.

“We do get callers on our helpline who report possible cases of abuse. We then refer these reports to the welfare department. Officers would then follow up on the reports.

“If the cases are serious, in most instances the authorities will respond. But we have to do our part,” says Yeoh.

Reaching out to victims is another way to help. You can ask them how they are or if they need help or even pass them information on where to get help, says Tan.

“When supporting survivors, listen without judging and help them explore their options. Part of empowerment is respecting survivors’ autonomy and providing them with information and resources, so they can make their own informed decisions,” adds Tan.

In domestic violence cases, the survivor’s options include applying for an emergency protection order at the welfare department andmaking a police report. She could also go to the “One Stop Crisis Centre” at the emergency room of government hospitals to get a medical examination, make a police report and get help.

Another option for victims is seeking refuge in a family member’s or friend’s home.

“Leaving is often a process, and it will take some time before a survivor is ready to leave. In the meantime, the victim can take steps to make herself safer, which is called “safety planning”. A safety plan is tailored to a survivor’s situation. Examples of these steps include having cash and a mobile phone (with credit) with emergency numbers, having important documents with her and knowing an escape route from her house,” says Tan.

“Whether it is reaching out to the victim or getting help from relevant authorities, stopping abuse and harassment should be everyone’s responsibility.

“Looking away is not an option. If we don’t respond or do something when we have the opportunity, we are part of the problem. We are culpable too. We need to be responsible citizens,” Yeoh reiterates.