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Sarah Everard protests vigil
Sarah Everard protests vigilPhotography Melissa Arras

Street harassment and sexual harassment NDAs could be made illegal

The measures are being reviewed as part of the UK government’s long-awaited strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, but there is criticism that it isn’t enough

Home secretary Priti Patel has announced that the government will review “gaps in existing law” around public street harassment as part of new plans to tackle violence against women and girls (VAWG).

Following the murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens last March, and amidst record low rape conviction rates and a culture of sexual harassment in schools, the government pledged to do better by women and girls. Over 180,000 responded to its consultation on the abuse of women in public spaces. Drawing on the data gathered from the consultation, yesterday (July 21) the government unveiled its new VAWG strategy which includes a £5 million ‘safety of women at night fund’ as well as the widely criticised plan to put undercover policemen in bars and nightclubs to keep women safe.

Patel said in a statement she was “determined to give the police the powers they need to crack down on perpetrators and carry out their duties to protect the public whilst providing victims with the care and support they deserve”.

The VAWG strategy also includes a ‘StreetSafe’ app, where women can record the areas they feel unsafe for better protections, such as extra streetlights or CCTV cameras, to be put in place. It commits to a public health campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment; promises “Transport Champions”, whose roles will be to protect women from sexual harassment on public transport; and confirms the government will make virginity testing – the examination of the hymen – illegal.

A new national police chief responsible for tackling violence against women will be introduced, while the Ministry of Justice will commission a 24/7 rape and sexual assault helpline. While the strategy also pledges a review of public street harassment and the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in cases of sexual harassment within educational establishments, it hasn’t made any commitments. This is despite Tory MPs including Caroline Nokes and Maria Miller, as well as feminist author Nimco Ali – who was appointed by Patel to advise the strategy – all backing legislation to make public sexual harassment (PSH) a criminal offence. 

Because of this, among other concerns, there has been criticism that the strategy doesn’t go far enough. Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence, told the Guardian that while there was much to welcome in the strategy, “it has absolutely nothing in it about the sexual exploitation of adult women or any real sense about how it is going to ensure crimes like indecent exposure will be taken more seriously. Saying it on a document doesn’t make it so.”

Our Streets Now, a campaign started by sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton to make street harassment a criminal offence in the UK, said in a statement the strategy was a “big first step” and that it would continue to campaign until PSH was illegal. “We welcome the government’s recognition that urgent and radical changes are needed to address the pervasive issue of public sexual harassment,” it reads, before continuing:

“Having feared the worst yesterday after reports that the government would be shelving (plans to make public street harassment a criminal offence), today we woke up to the news that the Home Office have committed to looking at the legal gaps we’ve identified. We are disappointed to see this isn’t yet a full commitment, but we will continue to campaign until it becomes one.”

Back in March, a survey by UN Women UK reported that 97 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 said they had been sexually harassed, dropping to 80 per cent when it came to women of all ages. As of writing over 440,000 people have signed Our Streets Now’s petition to make public street harassment a criminal offence in the UK.