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When will women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people ever be safe?

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On Saturday 4th December, the Law Commission – a legal body that advises on new laws – recommended the Government to consider making public sexual harassment (PSH) a crime, as there are still no laws protecting people from it. It is time to reflect on safety and what it means to navigate the world as a person subject to PSH on a daily basis. 

Safe: adjective; not in danger or likely to be harmed.* 

According to Aleah Scott, 25 from West London, Director of short-movie ‘Safe’ exploring women’s first accounts of public sexual harassment (PSH) and the long-standing effects it brings, safe means being able to leave your house and remain unbothered. Simple, but not that common. 

“For me, feeling safe is leaving the house without worrying if you’re going to come home. That sounds dramatic, but it’s a sad reality for women,” she says. “I’m talking about the scariest end of the spectrum here, but even about what lies between the two extremities. A lot of bad things can happen on that day and it all matters.” 

Being cornered, catcalled, intimidated, pressured by someone in a sexual way; getting lewd comments, sexual advances, unwelcome or unwanted attention, are the most common experiences women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people can encounter in public places. They are called public sexual harassment (PSH). Today, 68% of adult women have experienced it from the age of 15, 2/3 of girls have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public, and 1/3 of girls experience verbal harassment at least once per month. Since lockdown, 28% feel less safe now than they did before with regards to going out in public.

PSH is the direct result of gender inequality. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women regards gender-based violence against women as rooted in gender-related factors, including the ideology of men’s entitlement and privilege over women, social norms regarding masculinity, and the need to assert male control or power which enforce gender roles or prevent, discourage or punish what is considered to be unacceptable female behaviour. And Aleah mentions this threat of gender-based violence can also be amplified to much more if you add other layers to it, “if you are a queer woman, a trans woman, a black woman, an Asian woman, non-binary, there are all these other layers that kind of add on to it.” 

Why is safety a woman’s responsibility? 

As a young woman, Aleah says she almost expects to be harassed when going in public places, particularly if she’s going out.

“It’s like a mental preparation. If I’m going out, if I’m dressed a certain way, if I made myself look pretty, I almost anticipate the PSH,”.

“Then walking down the street, it’s like I have tunnel vision: I don’t look at anyone else, I make myself smaller, because I don’t want to attract unwanted attention. I just know if I make eye-contact with the wrong person, it could be instigating something I don’t want to interact with.” 

In order to avoid PSH, girls, women and gender-nonconforming people may change the way they behave in public places: the way they talk, the way they walk. It is as small as just walking with a closed face, or trying not to show weakness or stop being smiley, but alarming enough to need to do so to avoid unwanted attention. And Aleah recalls even changing behaviour doesn’t help that much, as when you’re walking down with an angry face, men just come and say ‘oh smile sweetie’. “Now I just walk around with a resting b*tch face so no one comes near me, but it doesn’t help, honestly. Why should that be the case?

Why can’t I just be in my dress, with my makeup on, and feel good about myself instead of having to make myself disappear?

Instead of feeling that sort of shame?”

This feeling of shame probably comes from the fact that, from a very young age, girls and gender nonconforming children are being taught how to avoid PSH and how to keep themselves safe when they’re out: not walking alone at night, taking a cab back home instead of the bus or the train, not wearing certain clothes, etc. This leads them to be positioned as responsible for preventing violence and harassment, and on another level, responsible if they’re being harassed. “When something happens, you’re met with this feeling of guilt and shame because you’ve been told all this time how to behave, and it feels like you have failed in keeping yourself safe. It affects your self-esteem,” Aleah says. “And that’s a wrong way of thinking because there is no way you could have changed the situation. It’s never our fault, and we know that, but you can’t help wondering what you could have done differently to change that.

Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray, writer of the book The Right Amount of Panic: How Women Trade Freedom for Safety, particularly highlights the paradox between the responsibility given to women and gender-nonconforming people and how they’re being told they are paranoid or hysterical when talking about these kinds of restrictions. “The right amount of panic means that women are told they have to panic in certain situations, and if they don’t, it is their fault for not, for example, knowing they aren’t safe at night in public,” she says. “But if they do panic then they are told they are hysterical. Basically, we can’t get it right – there is no right amount of panic and women will always be made responsible for not doing the ‘right’ things to keep themselves safe,” she adds. 

The issue here is that putting the responsibility on women keeps the focus off of the men who are harming women and gender-nonconforming people. They are using the current culture we have which devalues the victim in order to endorse and excuse their actions. Men are never taught about boundaries and gender-based violence whereas women are taught from a very young age to protect themselves. This leads to some of them not even realising what’s wrong and when they are. “When we talk about harassment we tend to think about the figure of the scary man or the creepy old man, but really and truly, it could be any man,” says Aleah. “There are situations where women are around men they trust, but because men have not been taught boundaries or what’s wrong, they do inappropriate things, they’d think it’s harmless when it actually isn’t. And they’re just completely unaware.”

A human rights issue 

More than a writer, Vera Gray is also a researcher and lecturer on violence against women and girls at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Met. In her book published in 2018, she wrote:

“Before we can change something, we need to understand it.”

She now highlights that since the murder of Sarah Everard in march 2021, women started sharing their experiences of PSH and the safety work they do in response. “This means that there does seem to be more understanding, particularly from men and boys who may not be aware of how ordinary these experiences are for so many women and girls,” she says. “My hope is that that understanding will begin to lead to change in how we respond and crucially how we prevent violence and harassment.” 

She also added that we can change women’s feelings of unsafeness by ensuring they are safer. “This means committed action to preventing violence against women, including changing the gender norms that support it, and holding perpetrators to account both within and outside of the criminal justice system.”

At an international level, violence against women and girls (VAWG) has long been recognised as a human right abuse. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines violence against women as: “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” In other words, the UK Government has clear obligations under international law to prevent VAWG. The UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) requires the UK, and other State Parties, to take action to eliminate violence against women as a form of discrimination and a human rights abuse.

On November 4th, the Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry to prevent violence against women and girls by opening recruitment for a new specialist adviser. After undertaking a literature review of existing information on preventing those acts of violence, the Committee will identify specific areas for further scrutiny. These may include topic areas such as cultures that underpin violence against women and girls, domestic and international obligations, and different preventative strategies, including education, workplace policy and community action. 

The aim of this inquiry will be to provide urgent, evidence-based recommendations to the Government. “By opening this inquiry, cross-party MPs are sending a strong message to the Government; action needs to follow words. We have reached a pivotal point in society where women have had enough of ingrained misogyny and the sustained threat to our safety,” said Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. “The Government cannot change this with warm words. Our inquiry will evaluate the existing evidence and hear perspectives from experts, to assess if the Government’s strategy goes far and fast enough.” 

Reclaiming the freedom to feel safe 

PSH is not a criminal offence in the UK and there are no laws protecting girls, women and gender-nonconforming people from street harassment. In 2019, sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton launched Our Streets 

“As young women, we have gotten so used to constantly being scared. Public sexual harassment is an incredibly threatening thing to experience. It makes us feel powerless, objectified, hurt, and angry,” they wrote. “But it’s also about the long-term effects. Being forced to adapt our routes and clothing, and restrict our behaviour in order to feel safe is not ok. Studies show that public sexual harassment can cause long-term emotional and psychological harm.” 

Alongside trying to make PSH a criminal offence, the sisters are working for societal change and raising awareness, especially about the aberration of having to experience it as children or teenagers. They created the campaign when Maya was 21-year-old and Gemma was 15, four years after her first public sexual harassment, already tired of it. 

Similarly, Aleah highlights the gravity of public sexual harassment in her movie by putting in perspective the age at which women experience it for the first time: way too young. “We do forget our first encounters of sexual harassment began when we were children. But really from young, when you’re about 12 or 13 year-old,” she says. “And it is still happening now. Why is that? Why are we going through sexual harassment for all of our lives? I’ve been subject to PSH for the last 12 years of my life and it shouldn’t be. When do we get a break? 

Because it feels like it’s going to be a while. Why is the whole of our existence based on protecting ourselves whilst we go out?” 

http://vimeo.com/575596298?embedded=true&source=video_title&owner=95975441

Sources: Our Streets Now, Plan UK, The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Women and Equalities Committee

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