By Sara Belhay
In what is often dismissed and trivialised, misogynistic street harassment profoundly impacts how women go about their day to day lives. In this post, Sara Belhay examines how by dismissing the issue, we as a society are allowing rape culture to perpetuate.
Having encountered street harassment more times than I care to remember, I often adopt various strategies such as ‘safety planning’ my journey, to instil a sense of security when I am travelling alone.
It comes as no surprise that I am not alone in doing this. In a recent YouGov poll, the first of its kind on street harassment in the UK, 63% of women (versus 45% of men), said they generally feel unsafe in public spaces, and almost half do conscious ‘safety planning’ when they go out in the evenings. 64% of women of all ages have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places and 35% of women had experienced unwanted sexual touching.
Numerous countries have increased measures to criminalise street harassment.
In 2015, the Social Democratic party in Portugal introduced a fine of up to 120 Euros or a year in prison for verbal sexual abuse. That same year, Peru implemented a maximum sentence of 12 years, that defines harassment as any act impacting the freedom and dignity of movement, or another person’s right to physical or moral integrity. Belgium passed a law in 2014, introducing a series of fines and prison sentences of up to one year for street harassment crimes. Nicaragua in 2012 passed law 779 also knows as ‘La Ley’ which protects women from public harassment. France made sexual harassment a criminal offence in 2012 with a sentence of up to two years in jail and a fine amounting up to 30,000 Euros.
Whilst the UK has legislation in place, it is not directly in relation to tackling street harassment. Furthermore, often women are either unaware that they can report street harassment, or choose not to on account that it will not be dealt with seriously.
Nottinghamshire Police however, are the first police force in the UK to broaden hate crime, to include gender. The Citizens Advice Bureau, define hate crime as a hostile or violent offence that is directed at people because of who they are or who someone thinks they are and is motivated by prejudice based on: race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity.
The catalyst for change started in 2014 when Nottingham Women’s Centre collaborated with Nottingham Citizens to tackle hate crime as an alliance.
Research was conducted whereby women reported that they felt the abuse they received was motivated by their gender, yet they were not able to report these offences as hate crime. This was fed in to a report which recommended a partnership between Nottinghamshire Police and Nottingham Women’s Centre, to look at the issue of gender and its correlation to hate crime.
A ‘Safer for Women’ summit was held in September 2015, whereby women in the community shared their experiences of street harassment. Key stakeholders in the community attended the event, including the police who then made the pledge to create the additional category as well as train their officers to respond to it.
This video, in which a BBC reporter experiences street harassment whilst reporting on street harassment, highlights how prolific the problem is.
Melanie Jeff, the manager at Nottingham Women’s Centre, commented that women often feel powerless after receiving misogynistic abuse, but hopes that this new approach will encourage women to report the offences.
“Since April, more than twenty women have reported an offence under the category of misogynistic hate crime”
There will be cases where the police will not be able to investigate incidents unless they have all the necessary information. However, if a victim reports an incident as hate crime, this can lead to lengthier sentencing after conviction, which can only be achieved if the police and prosecutor present sufficient evidence to prove hostility based on prejudice, further emphasising the importance of reporting.
Likewise, Melanie stressed that the more women who report incidents, the better equipped police will be in identifying patterns of who is offending, where the offences are taking place and thus how to eliminate the problem. Furthermore, Melanie added that this will also facilitate wider discussions regarding street harassment, challenging societal norms and inspiring a cultural shift.
Currently there are no plans for other forces to follow the lead of Nottinghamshire Police, although Melanie informed me that other parts of the country are campaigning for the same approach to be adopted. An event is being held 21st September at Nottingham Trent University to raise awareness of how other groups and agencies might be able to implement this same approach in their communities, tickets can be bought here.
The YouGov poll also revealed that an even more significant percentage of women aged 18-24 had experienced harassment. 85% had faced sexual harassment in public places and 45% had experienced unwanted sexual touching. More than 1 in 4 women said they experienced this before the age of six and more than 3 in 4 said it happened by age 21. These statistics are particularly significant as it highlights how deeply rooted the problem of harassment is in our culture and society. Melanie recalled a friend’s nine-year-old daughter who had watched a news report on the television concerning harassment and commented: ‘that’s what happened at school to me’.
If we continue to trivialise these acts of misogynistic hate crime, we will continue to fuel and perpetuate violence against women. Care in Norway has produced a powerful video message titled ‘Dear Daddy’ urging men everywhere to display a zero tolerance to rape culture by refusing to accept verbal or physical abuse towards women. The video implies that a boy who calls a girl a ‘whore’, will end up a rapist, explaining that misogynistic behaviour, including acts in the guise of ‘jokes’ escalate.
Echoing these concerns, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project has started a petition calling on Education Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening, and Prime Minister Theresa May, to make Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) compulsory in all schools. Outlined in the petition, Laura maintains ‘We owe every child clear, age-appropriate information, so they can understand that abuse isn’t normal, and learn how to navigate healthy relationships.’
It is only then that we can begin to change societal norms and eliminate violence against women.
For further help and support with tackling street harassment: