Reclaiming these streets will take more than better lighting

May 12, 2021

Image concept by Hannah with photographs from Pexels

Hannah Hutchings highlights the continual harassment that women and girls face

We didn’t learn about sexual harassment in school. But from the age of 11, I knew exactly what it was. I’d experienced it many times, usually in the form of a car beeping at me, or being shouted at in the street.

Such things may sound minor. Some would even say it’s a form of flattery. But believe me, that’s not how it feels when boys no older than ten yell horrible things at you. That’s not a compliment. That’s harassment. After a while, it wears you down.

All my female friends regularly deal with whistling, honking or sexist comments and some have been physically assaulted.

Laura Bates, the founder of Everyday Sexism project, says that the number and severity of street harassment incidents have increased during the pandemic. A recent survey by children’s charity Plan International UK revealed one in five young women have experienced harassment during lockdown with 28% feeling less safe outside.

Worst of all, unwanted sexual advances and obscene remarks start from a very young age. Research by Girlguiding warned that it was becoming part of normal life for girls, with almost 60% of 13 to 21-year-olds reporting sexual harassment at school or college.

A recent study by the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee concluded that “sexually charged behaviour” was driving young people’s interactions, both online and in person.

Within their findings, one 22-year-old said “lad culture” is a big issue: “In my school lads would come up to girls and grab their arse, and try to push them into the changing rooms and then say: ‘Don’t get upset, it’s just banter’.”

There’s something seriously wrong with a society that thinks it’s okay to yell ‘hot’, ‘fit’, or ‘nice arse’ at a child

That dismissive attitude is really frustrating. This behaviour is a form of bullying and abuse. And because it’s so common, many people don’t even notice it.

Yet it’s even happening to girls as young as nine years old. There’s something seriously wrong with a society that thinks it’s okay to yell ‘hot’, ‘fit’, or ‘nice arse’ at a child.

At any age, the difference between harassment and giving a compliment should be obvious from body language and tone of voice. I’m not saying you can’t find a stranger attractive or strike up a conversation, but street harassment is no more about compliments than rape is about sex.

It’s hard to know what to do when strangers treat you this way; try to confront them, ignore them, get angry or just don’t think about it? Personally, as I’ve got older, on some level I just accept it when it happens but not without feeling some fear, anxiety, anger and frustration with a dollop of misplaced embarrassment and shame!

Many women who experience harassment have also changed their behaviour, including avoiding walking in certain places, with keys between their knuckles just to feel safe. The whole procedure of going out, especially in the evening, can become fraught and difficult according to Laura Bates.

It’s going to take so much more than PM Boris Johnson’s promise to invest in street lights in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder to address violence and harassment against women and girls.

We still need a more substantial education, starting at primary school, ensuring people understand the damaging effects of sexual harassment

So what can be done?

It does feel like we’re making some progress thanks to the Reclaim These Streets movement, triggered by the tragic death of Sarah Everard. Women are speaking out about sexual harassment and assault. Social media has been inundated with stories of women’s experiences. But it’s not enough. We still need a more substantial education, starting at primary school, ensuring people understand the damaging effects of sexual harassment and bullying.

Young people interviewed by the Women and Equalities Committee said schools could do more to help them deal with sexual threats and aggressive behaviour, for example ensuring counselling is available.

It was last year, in September 2020, that Relationships Education was made compulsory in all primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education compulsory for all secondary school pupils in England. However, I think that schools still need to have clearer policies for dealing with sexual harassment and violence.

There is more awareness today about the challenges facing young people — but it’s not just teenagers that need educating. It should be obvious to everyone that it’s not “just a bit of fun”. Sadly, many people, young and old, need to be reminded of this.

Everyone’s Invited is a movement committed to tackling rape culture and harassment in schools by providing a platform for survivors to share their stories. It’s vital that such conversations start early.

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape or domestic violence/abuse you can get advice and confidential support here.

Funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, distributed by CommUNITY Barnet Giving has helped us with this work. Thanks to National Lottery players for making this possible.

Hannah grew up in Barnet and went to East Barnet School. She travelled to Asia and South America in her gap year. Over the past few years, she has taken part in various projects with Exposure which has improved her communication skills. Hannah is currently at Sussex university studying Law with Criminology.

Hannah grew up in Barnet and went to East Barnet School. She travelled to Asia and South America in her gap year. Over the past few years she has taken part in various projects with Exposure which has improved her communication skills. Hannah is currently at Sussex university studying Law with Criminology.

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