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Sexual harassment in public places

Sexual harassment in public places pervades the lives of women and girls, whether it is cat-calling in the street, up-skirting on public transport, misogynistic abuse online or sexual assault in pubs and clubs or at university. Yet, it is so everyday and routine that it is often invisible to those who don’t experience it.

So said the Women and Equalities Committee of MPs in an October report after its inquiry into sexual harassment of women and girls in public places. The committee chair, the Conservative MP Maria Miller, said she was delighted that the Government has accepted the committee’s key recommendation that this should be robustly tackled through its cross-government violence against women and girls strategy.

She added: “However, this is just the start of the journey and Government departments, public bodies and local authorities now need to sit down with women’s groups and other experts and develop a comprehensive programme of work to make public places safe for all women and girls. The Committee also welcomes the Government’s recognition of racialised sexual harassment of black and ethnic minority women and girls, and of the ways in which sexual harassment intersects with other inequalities.

“However, the Committee is concerned that the Government does not yet have a comprehensive programme of work in place for preventing and addressing the problem; the Committee’s view is that in practice the policy shift has not yet fully translated to the actions needed to tackle this comprehensively.”

As that implied, the Government declined to propose or agree to anything new and concrete.

The report stressed how harassment, mostly unreported, is ‘deeply ingrained in our culture’; such as in bars and clubs at night to the extent that it is the norm on a night out, or being up-skirted (photos or videos taken up their skirt without consent) on public transport. The MPs noted that the Government has already pledged to tackle sexual harassment as an equality and human rights issue under its international obligations, including a commitment made in 2015 to eliminate sexual harassment of women and girls by 2030. The MPs had not seen evidence of a programme of work for achieving the goal. The report complained that online spaces are public places where sexual harassment of women and girls is rife.

The MPs wanted the Licensing Act 2003 guidance amended to ensure that licensees take action on sexual harassment; and that universities should have a legal obligation to have policies outlawing sexual harassment, including collecting and publishing data on the effectiveness of those policies. The report praised good work by Transport for London and British Transport Police to address sexual misconduct, and called for it to go national, by train operators in their franchise agreements having to have ‘a robust policy on sexual misconduct’.

In its response, the Government said it’s developing plans to collect data on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace; and will incorporate sexual harassment in public places into the data collection. As for public transport, the Government side-stepped setting a contractural requirement, and noted that train operators are required to have a ‘Safeguarding Strategy’ agreed with British Transport Police (BTP).

Staying with transport, the MPs argued that viewing pornography on mobile devices in public has become a sort of harassment, and called for the Government to use rail franchise agreements to require train operators to block pornography through public WiFi on public transport and prohibit this activity through individual internet connection. In reply the Government said that all three equipment providers of WiFi on board trains already provide filtering protection against inappropriate content, which includes pornography. While there are laws against such inappropriate behaviour, the Government added that laws were ‘unlikely to be an adequate response’ alone.

The MPs called on Government to evaluate the Purple Flag scheme (that accredits towns and cities’ night life for safety and security), whether it is effective at reducing sexual harassment in Purple Flag areas. To that, the Government replied that Purple Flag is wholly independent of Government; run by the Association for Town and City Management (ATCM).

As for the committee asking for ‘licensed premises to have a policy to respond to and eliminate sexual harassment including training for licensees and taxi drivers’, the Government replied that the Department for Transport is consulting on statutory guidance which states that licensing authorities should provide safeguarding advice and guidance to the taxi and private hire trade. While the Government declined to agree to such a policy, it said that it works with the SIA (Security Industry Authority) as the badging authority for door staff among others: “…. private security operatives can contribute significantly to keeping keep women safe in the night time economy and preventing sexual harassment.”

On universities, the MPs said that the Government should put in place legal obligations ‘that mirror provisions in the US to link state funding with a requirement to prohibit sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and to collect and publish data’. Again, the Government declined to back this, saying that it would review whether a ‘non-legislative approach to tackling sexual harassment in HE [higher education] remains an effective means of driving change in the sector’.


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