Wolf-whistling could become crime under new laws to help protect women and girls

A woman talks to a police officer during a gathering in Clapham Common, London, after the Reclaim These Streets vigil for Sarah Everard was officially cancelled.
A woman talks to a police officer during a gathering in Clapham Common, London, after the Reclaim These Streets vigil for Sarah Everard was officially cancelled.

A widespread outpouring of emotion following the death of Sarah Everard has placed the safety of women and girls back into the spotlight

Published

Wolf whistling and other forms of street harassment could become a criminal act, the Home Secretary Priti Patel has indicated, as part of new measures to help protect women and children.

Following the death of Sarah Everard in Clapham, south London, earlier this year, the safety of women and girls was placed back into the spotlight, with the government urged to do more.

A government survey on the subject found nearly three-quarters of the UK population have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime.

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

The 2020 survey, which had 12,131 responses, found that harassment was reported to have occurred most frequently on the street or walking around (42%), in a club, pub or bar (31%) or on public transportation (28%).

A member of the public walks past the latest mural by Irish artist Emmalene Blake in Dublin's city centre. The inscription 'When will I be able to walk alone at night and feel safe?' relates to violence against women in the wake of the death of Sarah Everard.
A member of the public walks past the latest mural by Irish artist Emmalene Blake in Dublin's city centre. The inscription 'When will I be able to walk alone at night and feel safe?' relates to violence against women in the wake of the death of Sarah Everard.

Almost a fifth (18%) of those who had experienced harassment in the last year said this occurred daily, and 21% said it was on a weekly basis. The most common behaviours were unwelcome sexual jokes, staring or looks, and sexual comments, the survey found.

Women, young people (aged 15 to 34), ethnic minorities, LGB individuals, and those with disabilities were “significantly more likely” to have experienced harassment, the GEO said. Of those who had experienced harassment in the last year, a third said they had formally reported the behaviour.

The survey was published ahead of a Government strategy on tackling violence against women and girls due later on Wednesday.

A raft of measures have already been announced aimed at increasing support for victims and survivors, reversing declines in conviction rates, and reducing attacks. These include the creation of a new online tool called StreetSafe – which will allow users to pinpoint public areas where they have felt unsafe and say why – as well as a dedicated police officer in charge of tackling violence against females. Ms Patel also signalled her intention to take action on street harassment.

Home Secretary Priti Patel leaves 10 Downing Street, Westminster, ahead of an expected update from the Government on green list destinations for overseas travel. Picture date: Thursday June 24, 2021.
Home Secretary Priti Patel leaves 10 Downing Street, Westminster, ahead of an expected update from the Government on green list destinations for overseas travel. Picture date: Thursday June 24, 2021.

The strategy was based on 180,000 responses to the Government’s call for evidence from members of the public, with the vast majority of those coming in a two-week period following the murder of Sarah Everard near Clapham Common.

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.

Ms 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.”

Writing in the Times, on apparent plans to tackle wolf-whistling, the Home Secretary added: “We are taking action on street harassment.

A woman holding flowers looks at floral tributes left at the bandstand in Clapham Common, London, for Sarah Everard. Pc Wayne Couzens, 48, appeared at the Old Bailey in London charged with the kidnap and murder of the 33-year-old. Picture date: Sunday March 21, 2021.
A woman holding flowers looks at floral tributes left at the bandstand in Clapham Common, London, for Sarah Everard. Pc Wayne Couzens, 48, appeared at the Old Bailey in London charged with the kidnap and murder of the 33-year-old. Picture date: Sunday March 21, 2021.

“I am committed to ensuring not only that the laws are there, but that they work in practice and women and girls are confident their concerns will be taken seriously. It is important that the police enforce the law and give women the confidence that if they report an incident, it will be dealt with.”

The strategy proposes a new national policing lead to ensure best practice among forces and improve the response times to such crimes. Further pledges include a commitment to appoint two new so-called “Violence Against Women and Girls Transport Champions”, which the Government said will “drive forward positive change and tackle the problems faced by female passengers on public transport”.

And it seeks to criminalise so-called virginity testing, described by MPs as a “medieval” practice. Further pledges include the Ministry of Justice commissioning a 24/7 rape and sexual assault helpline, while the Department for Education will work with the Office for Students to tackle sexual harassment and abuse in higher education, the Government said. 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.

Shadow home office minister Jess Phillips said: “The services and support required to end violence against women and girls cannot run on warm words alone. How are we in a situation where we have better protections for statues than for women?

“Labour has set out a wealth of proposals to tackle violence against women and girls, but the Tories are dragging their feet. The Government should step up to the plate and take action rather than more warm words.”