While the UK was shocked months ago by the sudden death of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old woman kidnapped and killed on her way home in what was a normal evening, a study by UN Women UK reported that nearly 71% of British women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public place. This number rises to 86% among 18-24-year-olds. A very high percentage that shows how much catcalling, unwanted attention and physical aggression are the norm for the vast majority of women in this country.
Maybe, now, things will change. Under new plans proposed by the Ministers, cat-calling, wolf whistling and street harassment of women could become illegal. The government is developing a plan to combat gender-based violence that would also involve the criminalisation of street harassment in England and Wales.
The proposal was presented by Priti Patel, the British politician serving as Home Secretary since 2019, that recently unveiled plans to clamp down on those who harass or attack women and girls, with measures including a £5 million investment to improve safety for women at night. Also within the same plan, a new "StreetSafe" app was proposed, so that women can report areas where they feel in danger, and the Ministry of Justice will commission a helpline for 24/7 rape and sexual assault.
Ms Patel shared her opinion in The Times: "We will continue to look at gaps in existing law and how an offence for sexual harassment could address those. I am committed to ensuring not only that the laws are there, but that they work in practice and women and girls are confident their concerns will be taken seriously," she added. "It is important that the police enforce the law and give women the confidence that if they report an incident, it will be dealt with.". Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins called the plan a “really radical document” that could lead to a “decade of change.”.
Credit main photo: @ClodaghKilcoyne /Reuters
As Nimico Ali, the 38 year-old women’s rights campaigner said, the fact that street sexual harassment was still legal was “bizarre”. “We ban littering, we ban smoking in public areas – now, let’s ban the behaviour of men who can’t act civilly,” she said. “I don’t think people are conscious of how it corrodes women’s experience on a day-to-day basis. Making it a crime would be a massive step forward.”
It couldn’t be more right. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder: will criminalising catcalling and street harassment really help to protect women? I feel like this is great and much-needed first step in recognising that we have a problem, but by no means the full solution to that problem.
Fundamentally, women have the right to feel safe in public places and to know that should their safety be threatened, there are reliable mechanisms that they could turn to for support and protection. So, criminalizing street harassment could increase public trust in the system, such that women believe reporting incidents like those will create change. The move is designed to boost women’s confidence to report sexual harassment in public places, but I believe that dragging even more women through the justice system shouldn’t be the (only) answer. What we need is an all-round new approach.
Only focusing on a punitive approach is a delayed response to an already deep-rooted issue. It may discourage some perpetrators and bring wider awareness to women’s right to feel safe in their day to day life, but it’s not a preventive measure, and it certainly won’t address why these crimes are happening in the first place.
We need to accept that this is a cultural problem, and that therefore what we need is a cultural shift. Only through social policies that promote gender equality, we can educate society for a better future and hand the executioners into the hands of justice.
Written by Miriam Tagini