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New Legislation: Protecting Women and Girls from Street Harassment

Martha Davies reports as Priti Patel introduces extensive proposals to crack down on casual street harassment and improve investigation of harassment cases.

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Photo by Filip Mroz

Home Secretary Priti Patel has proposed a new strategy to protect women and girls against sexual harassment, providing much-needed improvements to current laws.

The Home Secretary’s plan is set to include the creation of a new national police lead to push police to take offences more seriously and improve response times to claims of sexual harassment. A review of offender management has also been promised with the aim of enabling the police to better target repeat offenders. 

The strategy outlines a commitment to appoint two “Violence Against Women and Girls Transport Champions” to provide increased protection for those on public transport, and additional support is set to be offered in the form of a new 24/7 rape and sexual assault helpline. A £5m ‘Safety of Women at Night Fund’ has already been created to help local authorities and transport workers improve safety provisions at night time.

The government has added that the Department for Education will work with the Office for Students to better address sexual abuse and harassment in school; this may include changes to personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), where boys will be taught more about respecting women and understanding consent. In cases of sexual harassment taking place in higher education settings themselves, the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) could be banned in order to prevent cases of harassment being covered up. The government is also likely to outlaw so-called virginity testing, whereby the hymen is examined or repaired. 

Change is Vital

Updates to the current laws surrounding sexual harassment have been long-awaited: existing legislation - including The Public Order Act of 1986 and the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997 - does not cover crimes with any sexual element, including one-off comments or other instances of harassment on the street, and the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 usually requires physical contact in order to be enforced. 

The Home Secretary’s plans reflect a growing concern about the safety of women and young girls that was sparked by the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens. Yet the risk of sexual harassment is ubiquitous: it exists not just in the headlines but in the everyday lives of women around the world.

A 2018 survey by Plan International shows that 66% of girls in the UK aged between 14 and 21 have experienced some form of public sexual harassment. Over 51,000 women and girls have shared stories of sexual abuse on the website Everyone’s Invited; the government’s new strategy, in fact, was developed using a consultation that saw over 180,000 responses, with members of the public offering feedback and recounting their own experiences.

The Effects of Sexual Harassment

The Home Secretary’s plans could see acts like wolf-whistling become a specific crime, marking a more forthright attempt from the government to make the streets less hostile for women and girls.

Cat-calling, wolf-whistling and other forms of public sexual harassment has alarming effects on both the mental and physical wellbeing of women. One study published in 2008 demonstrates that instances of harassment and unwanted public attention can cause women to “self-objectify”, leading them to experience greater body shame and even obsessively monitor their external appearance. Objectification and harassment in public places can also heighten the fear of rape for many women, meaning that they alter or restrict activities such as going out at night in order to reduce the risk of harm. 

These behaviours are routine for women because the threat of sexual harassment always lingers. To truly make the streets safer, the government will have to implement profound and lasting changes in legislation.

Hope for the Future?

A system better designed to listen to and process concerns is vital. Reporting sexual harassment is a historically challenging task, and it often comes to nothing. Reports of rape, for example, are increasing, but conviction rates are disturbingly low, with only 1.6% of offenders last year being charged. Even cases that go to trial are often hugely delayed due to backlogs in the Crown Court.

Women must feel that their stories will be heard and taken seriously, and that any reports will lead to action. The Home Secretary’s plans are promising, but what we need is a radical alteration to the entire system of both reporting offences and protecting women and girls. Whether the new strategy will deliver this remains to be seen.


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