The devastating news of Sarah Everard’s case has prompted a public safety debate, particularly centered on women across the UK. The abhorrent turn of events involving a woman walking home at night while taking all reasonable safety precautions has shed light on the shortcomings of the legislative framework currently in place in the UK.
With 97% of women between the ages of 18-24 having experienced sexual harassment, this is a problem that can no longer be ignored.
In the UK, no law has been enacted with the purpose of specifically preventing and prosecuting public sexual harassment (or “PSH”). PSH could includes behaviour like:
While some aspects of PSH behaviours may fall within the remit of existing laws (as we set out below), many argue that the vast majority of incidents will likely fall through the cracks of the current legislation.
Protection from Harassment Act 1997
Public Order Act 1986:
Sexual Offences Act 2003
There is also some specific legislation against ‘upskirting’ (Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019) and acts of ‘public indecency’ (Common Law - Outraging Public Decency), but there are no laws that effectively protect victims from other forms of PSH that are so often suffered.
Many campaigners have renewed their call to make PSH a specific, criminal offence in the UK. Infact, a recent Our Streets Now petition calling for criminalisation gained 100,000 signatures in less than 100 days post-launch (and at the time of writing now has over 420,000 signatures).
NGO Plan International UK argues that by making PSH a punishable crime:
Without clear legislation in place, police ability to respond to reports of PSH is also limited - giving those who harass others a higher chance of getting away with their actions if they fall into the grey areas of existing laws.
“For now, however, one of the most effective routes we can take to end PSH is by making it a criminal offence which challenges not only perpetrators but the culture which normalises this behaviour. In a society structured by law, the absence of legislation around PSH is notable. It is a direct product of the normalisation and passive acceptance of violence against women and girls in our society’” -- Our Streets Now
Several countries across the world have already implemented laws to tackle PSH head on. Campaigners argue there’s much for the UK to learn from them:
Following Sarah Everard’s death, immediate steps were announced aimed at improving safety for women and girls in England and Wales. These include proposals to deploy uniformed and undercover police officers in pubs, bars and clubs; and an additional £25m for better lighting and CCTV in towns and cities.
However, while Government action is welcomed by some, the proposals have been met with criticism by campaigners:
Critics also argue that the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has missed an opportunity to adequately include measures to tackle PSH at all. Check out our blog post for a full summary of the Police BIll.
Criminalising PSH will be a huge step in the right direction, but it is important to note that PSH is symptomatic of more deep-rooted societal issues, which must be tackled.
For there to be any meaningful change the focus must be on how to stop PSH and violence altogether. However, in the meantime, here are a number of safety hacks and applications to help people stay safe on the streets:
If you experience harassment or any behaviour that makes you uncomfortable in any way, make sure to alert someone immediately. Call 999 if you feel in immediate danger.
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