SEXUAL harassment against women on the street could become a new criminal offence following the alleged murder of Sarah Everard.
The campaign for the new law is being backed by Nimco Ali, a feminist campaigner appointed by the Home Secretary to advise on the Government’s new strategy to combat sexual violence against women and girls.
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Sarah Everard, 33, vanished as she walked home in London last weekCredit: AFP
It comes as a survey by UN Women UK revealed the shocking statistics that 97 per cent of women aged between 18 and 24 have been the victims of sexual harassment.
Writing for The Telegraph, Ms Ali slammed current loopholes in the law that allows women and girls to be the targets for illicit sexual and abusive comments from men and unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature.
“Street harassment is absolutely a form of violence towards women and girls and it currently goes unreported and unpunished. Tolerating behaviour like public harassment only makes it easier for serious crimes of physical and sexual violence to happen,” she said.
“Change is possible – I know this because through my and others’ work campaigning to end FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), it is now a tangible reality that FGM will end in my lifetime.”
A Home Office source said the proposal was “being looked at” as part of the sexual violence strategy, which will be published in the autumn.
On Thursday, Downing Street said the strategy was a priority Government to “better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes”.
Home secretary Priti Patel said: “Many women have shared their stories and concerns online since Sarah’s disappearance last week.
“These are so powerful because each and every woman can relate. Every woman should feel safe to walk on our streets without fear of harassment or violence.
“At this deeply sad and tragic time as we think and pray for Sarah and her family, I will continue through my role to do all I can to protect women and girls from violence and harassment.”
CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
Loopholes in current laws mean there is no specific offence for sexually harassing women verbally in the street.
The Public Order Act 1986 does not mention sexual harassment and doesn’t refer to crimes with any sexual element.
The Protection from Harassment Act of 1997 requires a “course of conduct” that does not cover the vast majority of street comments or abuse which are one-off and opportunistic.
The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 largely requires physical contact.
Ms Ali added: “Street sexual harassment should be a criminal offence.
“It is illegal to spit your chewing gum out on to the floor in public. You get fined.
“We have laws for drink driving and wearing seat belts. But to say to a 14 year old girl: ‘Come over here and do explicit things,’ is not a crime.
“You can’t be safe if people can be saying these kinds of things to a woman let alone children. Why can’t we take steps to make women feel as safe as men on the street?”
Serving police officer Wayne Couzens has been arrested on suspicion of murderCredit: SWNS:South West News Service
A police officer leaves tributes at the scene in Ashford, Kent, near where human remains were foundCredit: Dan Charity
Sarah, 33, vanished after leaving a friend’s house in Clapham, South London, to walk back to her home in Brixton on March 3.
Detectives investigating her disappearance have arrested a Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens, from Kent.
Met Police commissioner Dame Cressida said human remains have been found in a woodland area near Ashford, Kent.
However, detectives have not yet been able to confirm the identity of the remains and said it is likely to take ‘a significant time’.
In the UN Women UK survey, it also showed that for women who weren’t between 18 and 24, 80 per cent had experienced sexual harassment.
The women questioned also expressed a lack of faith in the police and their ability to be taken seriously and the abuse dealt with.
Ms Ali added: “Street sexual harassment should be a criminal offence. It is illegal to spit your chewing gum out on to the floor in public. You get fined. We have laws for drink driving and wearing seat belts. But to say to a 14 year old girl: ‘Come over here and do explicit things’, is not a crime.
“This is a human rights crisis. It’s just not enough for us to keep saying ‘this is too difficult a problem for us to solve’ – it needs addressing now,” said Claire Barnett, executive director of UN Women UK.
“We are looking at a situation where younger women are constantly modifying their behaviour in an attempt to avoid being objectified or attacked, and older women are reporting serious concerns about personal safety if they ever leave the house in the dark – even during the daytime in winter.”
A campaign for the new offence titled Our Streets Now has been set up by sexual harassment victims sisters Gemma, 16, and Maya Tutton, 22.
They have 225,000 signatures so far and have put their case to Ms Patel.
In the wake of the Sarah Everard case, women have come forward to share their own experiences with sexual violence, harassment and general feelings of being unsafe.
After women were advised by police to “avoid going out alone” Baroness Jones, a Green party peer, said men should be banned from being outdoors after 6pm to “make women a lot safer”.
Sarah’s case prompted women to share their own experiences of sexual harassmentCredit: AFP