Sexual harassment crackdown key part of halting violence against women and girls

The Government’s strategy for tackling violence against females was published on Wednesday.

Sarah Everard vigil
Sarah Everard vigil

The Government has announced a crackdown on sexual harassment as part of its strategy to tackle violence against women and girls.

Measures include a public campaign “focused on creating behavioural change” which it hopes will challenge misogyny in society, as well as pledges to ensure police know how to effectively respond to allegations.

It also said it would not rule out creating new laws over street harassment, saying: “We are looking carefully at where there may be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address those.”

Street harassment on women
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the safety of women and girls across the country was an ‘absolute priority’ (Aaron Chown/PA)

The Government will look at whether street design features could help improve personal safety in public, while it will also pilot an online tool called StreetSafe, allowing members of the public to anonymously highlight locations where they feel particularly vulnerable.

In schools and colleges, updated guidance will help ensure staff are clear on how to deal with reports of sexual violence and harassment.

Further pledges include the Ministry of Justice commissioning a 24/7 rape and sexual assault helpline.

The strategy, published on Wednesday, followed a public consultation taking in evidence from 180,000 people – the vast majority during a two-week period following the murder of Sarah Everard.

Marketing executive Ms Everard, 33, was kidnapped, raped and killed by off-duty Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens in March as she walked home, and prompted a widespread outpouring of grief and demonstrations over concern for women’s safety.

Sarah Everard death
Sarah Everard was murdered by off-duty police officer Wayne Couzens near Clapham Common in March (Family handout/PA)

Launching the strategy, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The safety of women and girls across the country, wherever they are, is an absolute priority for me.

“It is unacceptable that women and girls are still subject to harassment, abuse, and violence, and I do not accept that violence against women and girls is inevitable.

“I am determined to give the police the powers they need to crack down on perpetrators and carry out their duties to protect the public whilst providing victims with the care and support they deserve.

“This strategy, shaped by the responses of those who bravely came forward and shared their stories and experiences, will deliver real and lasting change.”

The strategy received an early mixed response from campaigners.

Sarah Everard tributes
Floral tributes at the bandstand in Clapham Common, London, for Sarah Everard (Yui Mok/PA)

Lucy Hadley, from Women’s Aid, said: “We are encouraged by the Government’s commitment to ‘radical’ reform, and a major new public awareness campaign to drive behaviour change.

“However this is not the same as a ‘whole system response’ to women’s experiences of violence and abuse.”

The charity estimated nearly £400 million would be required to securely fund specialist women’s domestic abuse services in England, describing the current commitments as “small, piecemeal”.

Rachel Almeida, from Victim Support, added: “Only system-wide, societal change will end violence against women and girls.

“It is vital there is a shift from the ‘victim blaming’ culture and poor police treatment for victims that has contributed to dismal justice outcomes for the majority of survivors.

“Much more needs to be done to address the epidemic of offending against women and girls across health, education, and the wider justice system.”

Maya Tutton, who founded the campaign Our Streets Now with her younger sister Gemma, to end public sexual harassment, welcomed the commitment to review legislation but said “we need so much more than this”.

She told the PA news agency: “We do think that this is not enough, and the commitment to review must become a commitment to legislate.”

Ms Tutton, 22, said including public sexual harassment in the strategy is a “massive wake-up call” to society about the scale of the problem.

She added: “Every day that goes by with action not being taken sees another young girl being harassed in the street, and until proper action is taken, both on prevention and on support, as well as changes in legislation we’re calling for, we’re not going to see rates of harassment go down.”

Melanie Field, interim chief executive at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said she welcomed the focus on prevention of crime, including through education.

She added: “The announcement of targeted information campaigns to tackle violence and misogynistic attitudes, alongside assurances that victims will be able to access appropriate support, are also very welcome.

“Sustained and sufficient funding for specialist support services for all victims will be key to the success of this strategy and to protecting women from abuse.”

The review is published against a backdrop of dismal conviction rates for rape, despite the number of reported incidents on the rise.

And the Everyone’s Invited website also highlighted allegations of a “rape culture” in education settings.

It came as a Government survey suggested that nearly three-quarters of the UK population have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime.

Some 72% of the 12,141 respondents experienced at least once form of sexual harassment – 43% in the last year – according to research by the Government Equalities Office (GEO).

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