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Street harassment: Doubts new law will change behaviour

Being followed home on a night out, whistled at in the street or having sexual comments being shouted while running are unwanted but all too common experiences for many women.

A new law making public sexual-based harassment a crime is being introduced, but many fear it will be unenforceable.

One charity told the BBC there was little chance of getting convictions.

But Hampshire’s police and crime commissioner believes it is a positive move and will make a difference.

The government-backed bill, which has been passed by the House of Commons and is now being considered by The House of Lords, could see people convicted of catcalling, stalking or other intentionally sexual behaviour, jailed for up to two years.

On a recent Friday night in Southampton, several woman told the BBC about their experiences.

One described how she was followed home by a group of men.

“I had to experience the whole walk home having my arms grabbed, my legs grabbed, arms round my waist… It was absolutely terrifying,” she said.

Other women said “catcalling and getting called stuff when you’re walking down the street” was a common occurrence.

With another added: “In the clubs you get grabbed up quite a bit.”

Security staff from GO! Southampton carry out additional patrols in the city centre to support police.

The Southampton City Council Safer Streets 4 project is funded by the Home Office and helps tackle anti-social behaviour and violence against women and girls.

Security officer Latrice Bannister, 19, said: “I tend to stop quite a few people who are walking up to a female just in a corner somewhere and just being a deterrent.

“…doing this job it’s made me so much more vigilant, not just on my behalf but on other people’s behalf as well.”

Sharon Ellis-Gillard is the director of Safempowerment – a Dorset-based charity that helps children understand the importance of healthy relationships.

She said: “I don’t know how it [the new law] is going to be enforced.

“If there was a car full of lads shouting to a girl and the police stopped them. They’d deny it and there would be no evidence. Every law is based on evidence and I don’t think there is a prospect of conviction.”

Ms Ellis-Gillard delivers sessions in schools where she talks to the boys separately about how street sexual harassment can affect young females.

“Boys didn’t seem aware of how it made girls feel. So when we go and speak to them, we have a young female university student that comes and talks to them about how they feel when these boys make these comments.

“The boys tell us that they didn’t realise that we worry that it might go from shouting, to then being in our face, and maybe touching us.”

Data difficulties

Currently, there is no specific law against street harassment but it can fall under the umbrella of criminal offences such as sexual assault, voyeurism and some types of indecency.

New legislation will mean data will be easier to analyse, as the location of offences is not always categorised.

The BBC submitted Freedom of Information requests to Thames Valley, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, Wiltshire and Dorset police forces to find out the number of street sexual offences over the past five years.

Hampshire and Thames Valley police were unable to provide the data and Dorset, Sussex and Surrey are yet to respond.

Wiltshire Police did provide data for the offences that street sexual harassment currently falls under.

It showed in 2022/23 there were 96 offences recorded as harassment in a public place, down from 330 in 2021/22.

Plan-Uk, a charity that has been campaigning to make public sexual harassment an offence, thinks the law will help deliver justice to girls.

Paola Uccellari, policy and advocacy manager for the charity, said: “For the first time, people are talking about public sexual harassment as something that needs to be tackled.

“It should deliver justice for girls who are experiencing public sexual harassment every day on our streets.

“I think the law could be strengthened. We’ve made our views clear on how it could be strengthened. But ultimately, this is the first step in sending out that message that this behaviour is unacceptable.”

Donna Jones, Police and Crime Commissioner for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, is confident the new legislation is a step in the right direction.

“…one single event is all it would take. And that’s why it’s really important because people will be able to be sentenced on what they’ve done.

“Particularly if they are wolf-whistling, if they are catcalling and they could be receiving a fine or perhaps an even stronger sentence.”

However, she does agree that more needs to be done before the crime is committed, like the sessions Safempowerment holds in schools for young people.

Back in Southampton not everyone is convinced.

The woman who was followed home said: “There’s never going to be enough evidence, it’s your word against theirs.”

Another adds: “I just think men are men, they’re just going to be doing their thing.

Her friend says: “An incident will happen, you’ll report it to the police, you’re probably not gong to find the person that did it so unless it’s patrolled properly it probably wont make a difference.”

Security officer Latrice Bannister though is more optimistic:

“I really hope so, I can make people aware of the new laws, and the more people who are aware of it the less it will happen,” she said.

(Source: BBC)


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