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Photography Lucia, via Unsplash

How public sexual harassment is holding girls back

A new report reveals the extent to which parents are prohibiting their daughters from doing certain things due to the threat of harassment

Recent statistics show that 38 per cent of young women aged 14-21 experience public sexual harassment at least once a month. 63 per cent of girls and young women aged 13-21 don’t feel safe walking home alone, while 68 per cent of women in the UK say they’ve experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15.

Despite these harrowing statistics, public sexual harassment is not a criminal offence in the UK. This means that women and girls are forced to take independent action, protecting themselves from possible abuse.

New research by Plan International UK and Our Streets Now – the campaign to make public street harassment a crime – reveals the extent to which this unabated harassment holds back women and girls.

Owing to the fact that 80 per cent of parents worry their daughter will experience public sexual harassment, 67 per cent of them instruct their daughters not to walk home alone after a certain time, 47 per cent warn them to avoid certain places, 41 per cent tell them they can’t go out after dark, and 40 per cent advise them not to take certain routes home.

Despite these worries, 37 per cent of parents say they wouldn’t know where to report street harassment if it happened to their daughter, while 70 per cent of parents whose daughters suffered harassment didn’t report it to the police.

The report also reveals that 51 per cent of women and girls experienced public sexual harassment over the summer, while one in five fell victim to it during the first national lockdown. With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that 94 per cent of girls think street harassment should be illegal, with 72 per cent of them asserting that if it were a criminal offence, they would be more likely to report it to the police.

Off the back of the study, Plan International UK and Our Streets Now have launched their #CrimeNotCompliment campaign, which calls for a clear law which makes all forms of public sexual harassment illegal.

“Listening to the girls we work with, alongside the experiences of my two teenage daughters, have made it all too clear to me, as the pandemic rages on, that public sexual harassment can no longer be ignored,” Plan International UK’s CEO, Rose Caldwell, said in a press release. “This persistent and pervasive harassment of girls across the UK is completely unacceptable, but sadly not surprising. This is something that affects not only girls, but their families, with parents worrying from a young age about the abuse their daughters face in public.”

One parent, called El, reveals her anger at hearing about her 14-year-old daughter Teän’s experience of abuse on her way to school. “I remember getting harassed when I was younger,” she said, “to the point where I didn’t walk down alleyways, I changed my clothes to feel safe in certain situations, and I wouldn’t walk on my own after dark. To know that 30 years later my daughter is facing the same issues is awful.”

Discussing the incident, in which a group of men shouted and made inappropriate sexual gestures to her out of the back of a bus, Teän – who was in her school uniform at the time – said: “I didn’t report the incident to the police because I don’t really know how to, and even if I did, I wasn’t confident that they would take me seriously or be able to do anything about it.”

As part of the #CrimeNotCompliment campaign, Plan International UK and Our Streets Now have worked with lawyers to draft a Ten Minute Rule Bill which they hope to put forward to the government in the coming weeks.

“I offer you our draft bill both as a concerned father and an infuriated lawyer,” said Dexter Dias QC, a human rights barrister who worked on the bill. “The staggering prevalence of public sexual harassment in all its pernicious forms is one of the most unregulated, overlooked, and misunderstood violations of fundamental rights of some of the most vulnerable young people in the country. We need an entire paradigm shift.”

“The UK is falling short of its international obligations to end violence against women and girls by turning a blind eye to significant and rising levels of public sexual harassment” – Charlotte Proudman, barrister

Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister, added: “To my knowledge, there has not been any prosecutions or convictions for public sexual harassment, which means that this form of abuse is happening with impunity. The law needs to send a clear message to perpetrators that this abuse will not be tolerated. The UK is falling short of its international obligations to end violence against women and girls by turning a blind eye to significant and rising levels of public sexual harassment.”

Teän believes that “having a clear law and ways of reporting will change so many women and girls’ lives” so “perhaps we’ll be able to walk down the street without feeling threatened, scared, and objectified”.

Maya and Gemma Tutton, the founders of Our Streets Now, said in a statement: “Across the world, countries have put legislation in place to address public sexual harassment in its entirety – the UK is lagging behind. Now is the time to take action. We deserve to feel and be safe in public spaces.”

Our Streets Now is also fighting to get public sexual harassment added to the curriculum in UK schools. Announcing the campaign, called Our Schools Now, in September, Maya and Gemma said: “We need to make sure that the next generation of children in the UK understand the prevalence and impact of public sexual harassment.”

Look back at Dazed’s interview with Gemma and Maya Tutton here, and find out more about the #CrimeNotCompliment campaign here.