“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King

Many young people recognise violence and harassment when they see it but lack the skills or confidence to take positive action. Others will get a better understanding of what behaviour is unacceptable by being part of discussions about why bystander action is important. The classroom can be an ideal place to start conversations about what makes certain behaviour unacceptable and why.

Why take action?
Women are at a much higher risk of violence when they live in a culture that justifies or excuses violence against women and supports sexism, rigid gender stereotypes and gender inequality. If we want an environment with less violence against women, young people need to start calling out sexism, sexual harassment or discrimination

  • People are most likely to take bystander action when they know the behaviour they’re witnessing is serious and that others will support their actions. 
  • They’re less likely to act if they lack the confidence to take action, if they don’t think their actions will make a positive impact or if they don’t feel supported by others. 
  • Interestingly, it is young people (aged 18-34) who are most likely to witness sexism, but least likely to act.

Teachers are in a great position to explain and reiterate the importance of taking bystander action to students. This doesn’t mean they need to put themselves at risk – rather, it’s about encouraging them to take action before violence has even occurred, by calling out attitudes and behaviours that create a culture where violence is ignored or condoned.

Talking points 
Try discussing and reinforcing these points with your students: 

  • They don’t have to be heroes or put themselves at risk. They have plenty of safe options that can make a big difference. They should always try to intervene calmly and respectfully, so they minimise the chances of getting into an argument or fight. For practical tips, get students to look through our resources for young people about how to take bystander action.
  • Sexism, harassment and discrimination are not trivial issues. The more they’re allowed to continue unchallenged, the more dangerous it is for women. Sexism, harassment and discrimination are significant components of attitudes that support violence against women, which can lead to severe consequences, including murder, rape and assault.
  • Every time someone speaks up against sexism, harassment and discrimination we build a better culture around us. Every time we allow sexism, harassment and discrimination to occur, our culture becomes less fair and more dangerous. And remember to encourage others when you see them taking positive bystander action.
  • Research shows there are many who want to do something, but don’t. Encourage students to discuss the issues with their peers, to get a feel for the support around them and how they can make a difference as a group.
  • Ask students to think about what they’ll say when they do witness sexism/harassment, e.g. 

“Come on, you’re smarter than that” 
“Hey, we’re not cavemen anymore” 
“That doesn’t sound like you, I know you’re better than that”
“Why would you do/say that?”
“Are you saying sexism is a good thing or that people should just put up with it?”
“Imagine if someone said or did that to your mother/sister”.

  • Remind students that every time they take bystander action it gets easier, they get better at it and, hopefully, they’ve made it easier for people around them to do the same. 

If we want to live in a culture of safety, fairness and equality, then our young people need to be prepared to challenge sexism, harassment and discrimination whenever they see it. As educators this is your opportunity to be part of building that culture. Readour other articles for educators on gender.