What factors encourage witnesses of intimate partner violence to help?

Hand raised to stop violence, photo by artit/Adobe Stock

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Many witnesses to intimate partner violence want to intervene but often do not know how, and numerous factors discourage them from doing so. Providing guidance on how to assist victims, strengthening protection for witnesses, and including the option to report anonymously may help encourage witnesses to help.

What is the issue?

The EU has long recognised that violence against women is a violation of human rights and a form of gender-based discrimination that has a terrible impact on victims and significant costs for society.

Some progress has been made to protect victims of gender-based violence and the European Commission gender equality strategy says combating the issue is a key action for the next five years. However, EU policy focuses mainly on protecting victims of violence and makes little reference to witnesses and the role they can play in tackling the problem.

To better understand the issue, the European Institute for Gender Equality commissioned RAND Europe, Oxford Research, and Alternative and Response Women’s Association (União de Mulheres Alternativa e Resposta) to examine which factors encourage witnesses of intimate partner violence* to intervene, and which factors discourage intervention.

* Any act of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence against women that occurs between former or current partners, whether or not they share the same residence.

How did we help?

Our study presents new evidence on witnesses’ support for victims of intimate partner violence which will be used to help EU decision-makers improve the level of response to the problem.

Researchers collected information on factors that enable or act as barriers for witnesses to intervene, the types of witnesses who are most likely to do so, and the types of environment in which it happens.

The project team ran focus groups with the public and conducted in-depth interviews with witnesses and professionals who work with witnesses, in Denmark, Germany, France and Portugal.

What did we find?

  • Negative perceptions of the police and judicial system may deter witnesses from intervening, and reporting intimate partner violence to the authorities in particular, due to concerns about not being taken seriously or the case not being investigated fully.
  • Witnesses may be deterred from intervening because they fear for their own safety or that of their family. Neighbours may feel at risk because the perpetrator may know where they live.
  • The relationship between the victim and the witness shapes witnesses’ inclination to intervene and how they choose to do so. Intervening (but not necessarily reporting to the authorities) is generally considered easier if the witness has a close relationship with the victim. However, a lack of emotional closeness may enable witnesses to report directly to the police.
  • Witnesses, particularly friends and family members, may be concerned about a potential escalation of violence against the victim if they report the case to the authorities.
  • Witnesses are more likely to intervene (and to report to the authorities) if dependent children are involved, although there are some exceptions to this.
  • Securing the cooperation and consent of the victim is a key enabler of witness intervention which can include talking to the victim, helping them access support services or report the issue to the authorities.
  • There is a wider recognition of physical violence than of other forms of intimate partner violence; the signs are perceived to be easier to spot and there is an expectation that the police will take reports of physical violence more seriously.
  • Friends and family are a key group when it comes to supporting victims of intimate partner violence, as well as neighbours and others in the local community.
  • Several member states have measures to encourage witnesses to support victims of intimate partner violence (including to report to the relevant authorities), particularly public awareness campaigns. However, these measures are rarely evaluated to assess their impact.
  • There is a lack of data and evidence about witnesses’ support for victims of intimate partner violence, including who reports intimate partner violence to the authorities and the environments in which this occurs most often.

What can be done?

  • Strengthen protection for witnesses of intimate partner violence and include the option to report anonymously.
  • Encourage witnesses to act even when they are unsure about the situation and advise them on the possible courses of action and issues to consider.
  • Provide more information and awareness-raising activities to help witnesses spot the signs of intimate partner violence, particularly non-physical violence, and encourage more witnesses to support victims in appropriate ways.
  • Handle reports of intimate partner violence effectively and sensitively and create additional steps to help improve the public perception of the authorities.
  • Give training and guidance on the obligation of professionals to report intimate partner violence as perceived conflicts between the obligation to report and patient-client confidentiality can deter witnesses.
  • Build clearer evidence about who most frequently supports victims of intimate partner violence (including reporting) and the environments in which this occurs to provide the EU and member states with better targets to achieve.
  • Conduct robust evaluations of measures to provide a stronger evidence base for improving interventions to encourage or enable witnesses to support victims of intimate partner violence.