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New laws burden women and girls with responsibility to ‘prove’ intent, write charities

26th May 2023

Plan International has joined forces with eight leading charities to raise the alarm on the threat of sexual harassment on women and girls. Together, our joint statement is below.

“Two Bills, aiming to make life safer for girls and women, are progressing through Parliament with Government support. However, we are concerned that both bills, the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill relating to public harassment and Online Safety Bill relating to cyber flashing (a form of public sexual harassment), are blighted by the same barrier to justice: A burden on victims to ‘prove’ the perpetrator’s intention was to cause alarm or distress. Meanwhile, a bill intending to strengthen protections for victims of workplace harassment, the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, has reportedly lost Government support.

Currently, not all forms of public sexual harassment are illegal and, where they are, the law is unclear, leading to inconsistent outcomes for victims reporting this behaviour. This is a glaring gap in the protection of girls, particularly when we know that young women and girls feel forced to change their behaviour in public as a result. A survey by Plan International UK found that two thirds (67%) of girls and young women aged 14-21 “take steps” to try and avoid harassment, including pretending to be on the phone, holding keys between their fingers or avoiding public transport at certain times.[1] Government support for the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill is a welcome step. However, the bill would still see victims expected to prove that the behaviour was “intentional” and aiming to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”.[2] 

Since 2020, Plan International UK and Our Streets Now have been campaigning to make public sexual harassment a crime. This year, they wrote to the Secretary of State calling for the requirement to ‘prove intent’ to be removed from the Bill, with support from Girlguiding, White Ribbon UK, Barnardo’s, Fawcett Society, Right to Equality, London Travel Watch, Irise International, and the Women’s Institute. However, the Bill in its current form still includes this provision.[3] 

Vital campaigning by UN Women UK, Glitch, Bumble, End Violence Against Women, and Refuge has helped start a public conversation around online sexual harassment which is needed more than ever. Plan International UK’s research shows that 15% of girls and young women aged 12-21 have experienced cyber flashing or airdropping, whilst polling by UN Women found that 4 in 10 (41%) of millennial women have been sent an unsolicited photo of a man’s genitals without consent.[4] Whilst the Online Safety Bill criminalises this behaviour, it still expects victims to be able to evidence the perpetrator’s intent was “sexual gratification” or to cause “humiliation, alarm or distress”.

We believe that some of the work undertaken by Government to make life safer for women and girls is being undermined by the demands set for them. In practice, the burden on victims to prove intent leaves the door open door for the perpetrators to say 'I only meant it as a joke’.

As charities advocating and working with women and girls, we believe the actual harm suffered by victims, rather than the intent of perpetrators, should be at the heart of legislation. 

We are also concerned by reports that the Government will miss the opportunity to strengthen protections in the Equality Act, by ensuring employers are required to take steps to prevent sexual harassment by third parties (such as clients or customers). Women and girls currently have less protection if they are sexually harassed in the workplace by people they don’t work with, even if they are forced to interact with them as part of their job. 

Despite the support of charities including the Fawcett Society and unions including TUC and UNISON for the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, tabled by Wera Hobhouse MP, is facing major hurdles in the House of Lords.[5]

All of us deserve to feel safe in all settings, including work and education, and it is vital that women and girls have a recourse to demand justice if they are harassed.” 



Plan International UK,
Our Streets Now,
UN Women UK,
White Ribbon UK,
Fawcett Society,
Suzy Lamplugh Trust



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