OPINION - London's public sexual harassment problem is bad — here's how you can help stop it

 (British Transport Police )
(British Transport Police )

When it comes to sexual abuse and sexual violence, it’s often regarded as a domestic issue. Yet recent research from the British Transport Police has highlighted one in three women have experienced sexual harassment on their commute.

Often then, it goes on in plain sight. But unfortunately too many people turn a blind eye, fearing the consequences of intervention. And while that’s certainly understandable given the potential risk of escalation or violence, victims often need people to intervene in some form or other.

At the app I founded, imabi, we recently conducted our own research into inappropriate behaviours on public transport. Alongside the most common behaviours, the research found that despite 54 per cent of people having witnessed inappropriate behaviours happening to others, only 30 per cent said they’d be willing to verbally intervene, with just 13 percent willing to physically intervene. A worryingly low number.

Unfortunately too many people turn a blind eye, fearing the consequences of intervention

If we’re to make society safer, people need to step in where needed and be an active bystander, rather than passive. However, it’s important to do so safely and responsibly.

The priority should always be to call the police if needed, but, if intervention is something you’d consider, here’s what we recommend when it comes to doing so safely:

1.Assess the situation: Before intervening, evaluate the situation to gauge any danger. Look for signs of escalation, the presence of weapons, and the number of people involved.

2.Ensure your own safety: Always prioritise your safety. If direct intervention puts you at risk, consider alternative ways to help, such as calling emergency services or seeking assistance from others nearby.

3.Use distraction techniques: If it's safe, employ distraction techniques to de-escalate the situation. Start a conversation with the aggressor or victim, ask for directions, or create a diversion to defuse tension.

4.Seek help from others: If intervening alone is uncomfortable or the situation seems too risky, enlist the help of others nearby. This could be your friends, authority figures, such as train staff, bus drivers and so on, or fellow bystanders.

5.Maintain a safe distance: If intervening directly, keep a safe distance from the aggressor to minimise the risk of physical harm. Avoid getting too close, especially if the situation is volatile or the aggressor appears armed.

6.Stay calm and non-confrontational: Approach the situation calmly, avoiding actions that escalate tensions. Use a calm tone and non-threatening body language to de-escalate and facilitate communication.

7.Respect boundaries: Respect the boundaries of those involved and avoid imposing your own agenda. Offer support and assistance without intervening in a way that feels intrusive or disrespectful.

8.Know your limits: Recognise when it's appropriate to intervene and when it's best to step back. If the situation becomes too dangerous or you're unsure how to help, prioritise your safety and seek assistance from professionals or authorities.

9.Use technology to report incidents: Reporting an incident helps authorities prevent future occurrences and prosecute when necessary — whilst trend analysis from reports allows strategic placement of police or security to prevent incidents in hot spots. There are growing opportunities to lean on technology when you witness a crime, with solutions such as our imabi platform, offering an anonymous and accessible way to drive societal change.

10.Interrupt: You don't need to confront anyone or wait for a situation to escalate. As soon as you see something uncomfortable, do something small and subtle to defuse the situation. Your presence is a powerful tool. If safe, standing between a person causing harm and a victim might be enough to stop the situation. Examples include placing something in overhead racks, looking at the station map, or taking a walk down the carriage to stretch your legs.

For society to change for the better, we need more community-minded people to take action. Of course though, those actions need to be taken with safety first and foremost in mind. Don’t put yourself or others at risk of further harm. Take a measured, considered approach but, ultimately, do take action. By becoming active bystanders, we can help to make society safer for all.

Mark Balaam is a White Ribbon ambassador and the founder and chief executive of safeguarding platform imabi