The Women and Equalities Committee is calling on the government to do much, much more to end the harassment of women and girls.
For a long time, the sexual harassment of women in public was seen as an inevitability; as simply a part of life in the UK. Certainly, men who catcalled, wolf-whistled, groped, hassled or followed women were not perceived as a problem that police or the government could – or should – do anything about. An attitude of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘women should take it as a compliment’ reverberated right up the societal food chain, making it almost impossible for women to take action against harassers.
But in recent years, attitudes have shifted. Key to that change were the awareness-raising efforts of the Everyday Sexism Project, anti-harassment initiatives such as Hollaback, and the #MeToo movement – as well as research by the End Violence Against Women coalition that revealed that most women in the UK have been sexually harassed in public. Gradually, women (and LGBTQ+ people, who are also frequently made to feel unsafe in public) have realised that we can demand that authorities take street harassment seriously.
Now, the Women and Equalities Committee has added its voice to calls for the government to do more to tackle the harassment of women and girls in the UK.
After a nine-month inquiry into the issue, the cross-party group of MPs found that street harassment was so widespread and “relentless” that it became “normalised” for girls as they grew up.
The committee’s report said that while the UK government “has a strong reputation for taking seriously the prevention of sexual abuse and violence overseas,” it “is failing to address the problem at home”.
The government had previously pledged to eliminate the sexual harassment of women and girls by 2030 under its obligations to the UN.
However, the MPs on the Women and Equalities Committee found “no evidence of any programme to achieve this”, adding that the issue of sexual harassment was “almost entirely absent” from the government’s current strategy for tackling violence against women and girls.
According to the committee, there are seven steps the government and other authorities should take to properly tackle street harassment:
- Force train and bus operators to take tougher action against sexual harassment and block the viewing of pornography on public transport
- Ban all non-consensual sharing of intimate images
- Publish a new “Violence Against Women and Girls” strategy
- Create a public campaign to change attitudes
- Take an evidence-based approach to addressing the harms of pornography, along the lines of road safety or anti-smoking campaigns
- Tougher laws to ensure pub landlords take action on sexual harassment – and make local authorities consult women’s groups before licensing strip clubs
- Make it a legal obligation for universities to have policies outlawing sexual harassment
A spokesperson for the Home Office said that the government had pledged £100 million in funding to support local services in tackling violence against women and girls, and that it was working on an updated strategy to tackle the issue.
“Whether in the home, the workplace or in public, sexual harassment is unacceptable,” they said, adding that the Home Office would consider the committee’s recommendations before responding fully.
Maria Miller, the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said that it was “not acceptable that women have to change their behaviour to avoid sexual harassment.
“It has a wider effect on society, contributing to a culture in which sexual violence can be normalised or excused. All of this keeps women and girls unequal.”
She added that other authorities, as well as the government, had a responsibility to address street harassment if public places were to “be made safe for all women and girls”.
“The #MeToo movement shows that we must confront some deeply uncomfortable truths about our society and the attitudes some men hold,” Miller said.
“Laws alone cannot solve the cultural acceptability of sexual harassment. That is why we have set out a series of practical measures that Government, public transport operators, local authorities and universities should implement immediately.”
Let’s hope they listen.
Images: Ozgu Ozden/Nicola Fioravanti/Unsplash, Getty Images