Why is public harassment an issue?
PSH is the most common form of harassment, yet it is often hidden in plain sight. It negatively impacts women’s well-being, creating a state of fear. PSH limits a person’s freedom to live their lives in peace.
PSH is so widespread within our society that the majority of women and girls in the UK will be subjected to it at some point within their lifetime and it will often begin during their childhood:
- A UN report found that 71% of women of all ages in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space
- Research by Plan International UK found that PSH is experienced by 92% of girls and young women who consider themselves to have a disability, 90% of non-heterosexual girls and young women, and 82% of Black, African, Caribbean and Black British girls
Women are left feeling unsafe in public spaces, silenced and ignored.
Girls deserve better. They deserve to walk home without fear of their safety and attend school without being objectified and humiliated. Such abuse only serves to reinforce women and girl’s subservient status in society. We must challenge such outdated notions – and use the law to achieve this vital social ambition.
What Do We Do?
Our crucial campaign call is to close the lacuna in the law, to ensure anyone who experiences sexual harassment in public are protected. Our work implements effective change to end PSH:
- We have drafted a Bill which would give effect to the practical legislative changes urgently needed to address this issue and which is in line with recognised international human rights and safeguarding standards, including the Istanbul Convention, which the Government has recently ratified.
- We work in collaboration with Our Streets now and Plan UK to campaign for public sexual harassment to become a specific criminal offence. In 2020 the global children’s charity Plan International UK and youth-led campaign Our Streets Now launched the #CrimeNotCompliment campaign to tackle public sexual harassment.
Why Change the Law?
The law currently does little to address the issue of PSH. Currently, the UK government views that behavior amounting to PSH is already covered by existing criminal offenses. These include the Criminal Justice Act 1988, the Public Order Act 1986, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003 et cetera. However, some girls and women who have taken the bold step of reporting PSH to the police have been turned away. In some instances, the police have reportedly told them that sexual harassment is not a crime, whilst others have felt the abuse has been minimised and demeaned.
However, there is evidence that making PSH a criminal offense would have positive effects. If the UK government made PSH a specific criminal offense, it would be in line with a growing number of countries. For example, in 2014, Peru made street sexual harassment a crime and Belgium made it a criminal offence to sexually harass or intimidate a person in public based on gender. In 2018, France introduced a law against PSH and permits officers to charge fines on the spot. In the first year of the legislation being introduced, almost 450 fines were issued for degrading comments and unwanted sexual attention. This legislation was widely hailed by women and politicians as a positive step in taking sexual harassment seriously.
Criminalising public sexual harassment would have an immediate safeguarding and forensic effect and also send a strong symbolic message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. We believe that the law can advance the rights of women in society and thus it is imperative that legislation reflects the lived realities of women and girl’s lives.