A bystander intervened when I was sexually assaulted – more people should help

It was winter at the beginning of last year, around 10pm, when I was assaulted.

I was heading home on the DLR after visiting my sister in London. It was just me and another passenger on the carriage, until a drunk man in his 40s or 50s got on. 

Despite the carriage being nearly empty, the man sat next to me, which made me instantly suspicious. And as he began leering at me, smiling and staring intently, I felt increasingly uncomfortable.

Luckily, further down the carriage a younger man in his 30s spotted I was uneasy and politely asked the drunk man to leave me alone. So he did, getting up, moving away and sitting somewhere else.

But not for long.

Within minutes, he’d returned – and that’s when things really escalated. He began grabbing me, trying to kiss me. ‘You don’t need anyone to protect you,’ he slurred. I froze. I’d never had anything like this happen to me before. It was terrifying.

Thankfully the man who helped me intervened again, getting between me and the drunk man so I could get off the train at the next stop.

Even then, the drunk man managed to give my bum a final slap.

It had all happened so fast and as I stood shaking on the platform, I was overwhelmed with emotions – mostly fear, but also anger. The man’s laughter was echoing throughout my mind. ‘You wouldn’t remember me if you saw me again, but I’ll always remember you,’ I thought.

I know there is nothing I could have done differently in that situation. I also knew it wasn’t my fault.

I still feel angry and violated by what happened to me

I called my sister and told her what happened. She was really supportive and we were both just so grateful that someone else was there, who was brave enough to step in and help me. It scares me to think of what might have happened if he hadn’t chosen to step in.

In the days that followed I reported the incident to the police. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to find the man that assaulted me. Nonetheless, I’d still encourage anyone that’s been subject to any form of violence against women and girls to report what happened to them, in case it helps prevent further abuse, provided it’s safe and they feel comfortable to do so.

In the aftermath, I wasn’t able to focus on my degree. I had to apply for mitigating circumstances at university to get extensions on two of my essays – one of which was worth the entire grade for that module.

I’d never had to do anything like that before and was worried they wouldn’t believe me but thankfully, there were no issues and I was given two months extension.

A year on, the events of that evening have really changed me. I’m now hyper-aware of the men around me. I no longer sit in seats on public transport where I could get ‘blocked in’ or that aren’t close to an exit.

I rarely go out alone at night, and if I do, I’m definitely much more conscious of what I’m wearing – even though the actions of abusive men are never a consequence of your clothing. I was wearing a thick coat and a face mask when I was assaulted.

I still feel angry and violated by what happened to me. I was just trying to get home, travelling a route I’d used many times before. What was a brief drunken incident for him is something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.

While what happened to me has certainly made me more distrustful of men, I believe it’s also taught me a lot about the importance of intervention. Now I’d like to think I’d be more inclined to step in if I witnessed any act of violence or aggression towards a woman.

I have previously avoided stepping in when faced with that kind confrontation in public. As a woman, you worry about getting hurt yourself or potentially even making a situation worse, but I know there are still ways to help or show support that don’t involve a direct confrontation.

I will always remember how I felt in that situation – alone, afraid and unsure. But even the smallest acts of intervention can have a big impact.

According to a government poll, more than half (54%) of women who have experienced harassment or abuse – including street harassment, coercive behaviour and groping – say that no one intervened to help them.

I know I was lucky, but I hope that more people will start to see it as a collective responsibility to safely step in when they see abusive behaviour. We all have a part to play in this if we want to make women feel and stay safe.

Having been through that experience, I think it’s positive to see an effort being made to encourage people to intervene when they see assaults happen. I hope the likes of the ENOUGH campaign, offering intervention advice for those witnessing abuse, might encourage people to step in for others, as that man did for me.

My message to any future bystanders is that you can always do something, even if it doesn’t feel safe to directly challenge a harasser in the moment. Everyone has a role to play in ending violence against women.

Whether you intervene directly if it feels safe to do so, seek support from authority figures who may be around you, create some form of a distraction to give the person being targeted a chance to move away or even check if the person being targeted is OK – all these seemingly simple acts can truly help stop abuse. I know it’s easier said than done sometimes, but any help is help, even if from afar.

And for any survivors that have been through a similar situation – just remember, it’s never your fault. You didn’t do anything to bring that on and shouldn’t be made to feel any shame.

We have looked the other way when it comes to violence against women and girls for too long. Now is the time to change; now is the time to stop, pay attention and make a difference.

Leela Dookhurrun is supporting the government’s ‘ENOUGH’ campaign. For more information on how to safely tackle violence against women and girls and to be guided through the mnemonic to help you remember how to STOP (Say something, Tell someone, Offer support, Provide a diversion), visit http://www.gov.uk/enough.

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