Sexual harassment of women and girls in public

It seems that no matter where we turn these days we are faced with reports of abuse, rape, domestic violence, hate crime, exploitation, workplace harassment, human trafficking, and school children in uniform being vilified (street harassment). These reports appear to have attracted more media attention and prominence since the establishment of the #MeToo movement.

However, the House of Commons, Women and Equalities Committee, which recently published its Sixth Report entitled ‘Sexual harassment of women and girls in the public places’, finds despite the fact that sexual harassment pervades society and affects the lives of nearly every women in the UK, the government is lacking in any clear policy direction or a co-ordinated, comprehensive programme of work to tackle this behaviour which it describes as “deeply ingrained in our culture”. In fact the Committee reports that “The foot is almost entirely off the pedal and Government has not caught up with the huge social changes reflected in the #MeToo movement”.

The Committee highlights that the Government is at “risk of giving an impression that sexual harassment is either too trivial to address or it is immune to policy intervention”, despite the UK having signed up to long standing (2012) EU Convention obligations to tackle and eliminate sexual harassment and other violence against women.

Whilst the Committee recognises that the Government has a well-regarded cross-departmental strategy for tackling Violence Against Women and Girls the Committee was astonished to find “that the most common form of violence against women – sexual harassment – is currently almost entirely overlooked”, despite various studies indicating that:

  • 68% of respondents in the UK have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15,
  • 85% of women aged 18-24 reported unwanted attention in public spaces and 35% unwanted touching,
  • 63% of girls and young women conveyed they did not feel safe walking home alone,
  • 63% women aged 18-24 said they experienced sexual harassment on a night out,
  • 17% (university students) have been a victim of some form of sexual harassment in the first week of term (59% of which took place at social events or nights out, with 33% of these incidents occurring in Halls of Residence).

The Committee found that there is a clear need for education, legislation, and awareness campaigns in developing an effective preventative strategy rather than the Government seeking to adopt a reactive response to problems as they emerge.

Significantly the Committee has highlighted the need to understand the underlying factors that cause or contribute to harassment being perpetrated in public places in order to develop an effective policy solution to the problem.

The Committee recognise that some positive work has been undertaken within central Government, specifically a number of local initiatives within specific service sectors, but they are underfunded, uncoordinated and inconsistent. The Government will have to show more commitment to developing a consistent response to sexual harassment both in terms of policy and law and will need to adequately resource both, if they are to deliver on their Convention obligations and the UK’s commitment to eliminate sexual harassment and other violence against women by 2030.

A number of recommendations have been made to Government by the Committee and The Minister for Women has indicated an intention to refresh the Governments strategy.

While we await the refreshed Government strategy the Committee invites us all to play our part in developing local policies within the workplace and service sectors, which aim to achieve the common objective to prevent sexual harassment, providing support strategies, encourage disclosure, tackle gender and inappropriate stereotypes and inappropriate behaviour.


Authored by Jagdeep Hayre, Partner, BLM Birmingham

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