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Think the law protects girls from public sexual harassment? Think again.

Think the law protects girls from public sexual harassment? Think again.

Why we need a new law to make public sexual harassment a crime.

Please note: this blog contains descriptions of sexual harassment.

Girls as young as ten are being harassed, followed and touched. This relentless public sexual harassment can happen anywhere – and it needs to stop. That’s why we’ve teamed up with the Our Streets Now campaign and leading human rights lawyers to call for a new Public Sexual Harassment Law.

I'm Rubie, the Campaigns Officer at Plan International UK and I spoke with lawyers Dexter Dias QC and Dr Charlotte Proudman to discuss why the Government urgently need to make public sexual harassment a crime.

The existing law in this area is a patchwork of offences that have evolved for different reasons over the years, so there are many instances of public sexual harassment which fall through the legal cracks.

Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you’ve worked on before? 

Dexter Dias QC:“I’m Dexter Dias, a proud parent of two teenage daughters and a human rights lawyer. I’ve worked for years on creating legal change that protects women and girls, most notably my work to strengthen the laws around female genital mutilation(FGM).”

Dr Charlotte Proudman:“I’m Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister, campaigner and passionate feminist. I use the law as a tool to further gender equality and eliminate discrimination against women and girls.”

What motivated you to work on a draft bill to make public sexual harassment a crime?

Dexter:“As a parent of teenage girls, I’m passionate about making the world a safer place for my daughters. When I mentioned that I’d been asked to draft a new law to criminalise unwanted sexual conduct in public, my youngest, then 15, said, ‘Dad, it won’t work.’ And that’s what both upset and infuriated me. When I asked her why, her response was, ’No one cares about what happens to girls my age or why hasn’t anyone done anything about it before?’

What is public sexual harassment? Have you ever witnessed it or experienced it yourself?

Dexter:“Public sexual harassment is unwanted sexual behaviour, actions or gestures, which could be verbal, non-verbal or physical, in public places.

“My daughters have told me that they are harassed constantly: on the way to school and back, when shopping, when visiting friends, going to the park, jogging, just walking along the road.”

Right now, what types of public sexual harassment can be prosecuted against?

Charlotte:“There’s a few examples of public sexual harassment which are currently covered by existing law, such as groping, which is included in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 and ‘Upskirting’ which is protected against under the Voyeurism (Offences) Act of 2019.” 

Our current legal framework on public sexual harassment is extremely piecemeal, and the laws stretch back centuries. What are some of the weird and outdated bits of legislation that need replacing by a new law?

Dexter:“The example that always comes to mind for me is the ‘Outraging Public Decency law’. It first came about in the 1600s and was used to prosecute a man for urinating on a crowd from the balcony of a pub in Covent Garden! This is the law we are still using now to supposedly protect people from harassment – it's clearly not fit for purpose.”

And what types of public sexual harassment aren’t protected by law?

Dexter:“The existing law in this area is a patchwork of offences that have evolved for different reasons over the years, so there are many instances of public sexual harassment which fall through the legal cracks.

Charlotte:“None of the following examples are currently covered by existing law: persistently following or cornering someone, sexual propositioning, pressing against someone and ‘air dropping’ unwanted illicit images to someone’s phone (also known as cyber-flashing).”

Can you summarise the changes we want to see made to the law? What will this law do that is different?

Charlotte:“There is no offence in the law of England and Wales regarding public sexual harassment. As it stands, not all forms of public sexual harassment are illegal and where they are, the complexities in the legal framework mean it is not enforced effectively – leaving a glaring gap in the protection of girls and women. Harassment should not be normalised as just part of being a girl – it is a form of gender-based violence and it needs to be treated as such by UK law.” 

Dexter:“Our cutting-edge bill will criminalise public sexual harassment in all public spaces for the first time. Our proposed new law will fill a glaring gap in the UK’s laws and bring us up to speed with countries such as France, Belgium and New Zealand, which all have legislation specifically outlawing sexualised harassment in public spaces.”

What impact do you think this new law could have?

Charlotte:“The law carries an enormous cultural effect.  Creating specific legislation for a particular type of harmful behaviour changes the conversation about how seriously society takes the issue. This was the experience with forced marriage and FGM legislation.”

Will a new Public Sexual Harassment Law help reporting? If so, how?

Dexter:“Implementing a Public Sexual Harassment Law will have great cultural value, by reassuring girls and women that their experiences are recognised by law. It makes it more likely that they will report a crime, because they understand that they will be taken seriously, and the law is on their side”.

So, how would this draft bill actually become law?

Dexter:“There are two pathways for creating legal change.

“The first is through something called a Parliamentary Private Members’ Bill. These are bills that are introduced by individual MPs rather than by the Government which are then debated and can be adopted by Parliament.

“The second pathway is the Government could put forward its own bill on public sexual harassment for adoption by Parliament. We want to see the Home Office put forward our Public Sexual Harassment Law."

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