Public sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence. It comprises a range of harmful behaviour including unwelcome and unwanted attention, sexual advances and intimidating behaviour that occurs in public spaces. It is widespread within our society: the majority of women and girls in the UK will experience this at some point, and it will often begin during their childhood. Research by Plan International UK in 2021 found that three quarters (75%) of girls and young women aged 12-21 have experienced a form of sexual harassment in a public space in their lifetime. For some groups, prevalence is higher, with 92% of girls and young women who consider themselves to have a disability, 90% of non-heterosexual girls and young women, and 82% of Black, African, Caribbean and Black British girls and young women having experienced it.

But while the prevalence rates are so high, the current legislation protecting victims against these behaviours is fragmented: there is no specific legislation in England and Wales that protects a girl from public sexual harassment, for example, sexual comments made in public about her body parts that are degrading and designed to inflict harm on her. This why in 2020 the global children’s charity Plan International UK and youth-led campaign Our Streets Now launched the #CrimeNotCompliment campaign to tackle public sexual harassment.

Our crucial campaign call is to close the lacuna in the law, to ensure all girls – and indeed anyone who experiences sexual harassment in public – are protected, and to send a clear message to the public that this behaviour is socially unacceptable. We have drafted a Bill which would give effect to the practical legislative changes urgently needed to address this issue and which is in line with recognised international human rights and safeguarding standards, including the Istanbul Convention, which the government recently ratified.

Campaigning at this time is no mean feat: we’re on our third Prime Minister and Home Secretary since launch, each with their own opinion of how best to tackle public sexual harassment – with our current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak stating in the summer leadership race that violence against women and girls should be treated as a national emergency, but only going so far as to pledge to criminalise ‘down-blousing’. However, progress is progress, and we believe that it is a matter of when, not if, action is taken to tackle this issue.

In December, following a Home Office consultation on creating a specific offence of public sexual harassment, a private Members’ Bill – the Protection from Sex-Based Harassment in Public Bill – introduced by Conservative MP Greg Clark passed Second Reading in the House of Commons with government backing. The Bill introduces an amendment to s 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 to aggravate existing offences if the behaviour was found to be due to the complainant’s sex – in line with the outcome of the government consultation response.

As public sexual harassment is overwhelmingly experienced by women and girls, we can view this legislation as a welcome first step in bringing about long-term change, in which society no longer sees these behaviours as acceptable. However, as it currently stands, there are some elements that need improving to ensure that the Bill fulfils its potential and protects anyone who experiences public sexual harassment:

First, by simply aggravating existing public order offences, the government is missing an opportunity to clearly and unambiguously criminalise public sexual harassment, and address the legal gaps. In addition, much of the potential legislation requires a course of conduct by one perpetrator, whereas targeted women and girls most often experience public sexual harassment as frequently recurring, one-off incidents by different perpetrators. This results in creating confusion amongst the police who have a history of taking different and legally inconsistent approaches to reports. Consequently, the women and girls we have spoken to worry that they won’t be listened to or taken seriously by the police.

Addressing the gaps in the law surrounding sexual harassment in public spaces would make it compliant with the gold standard for tackling public sexual harassment set by Article 40 of the Istanbul Convention. It states:

‘Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, is subject to criminal or other legal sanction.’

Second, proving the offence was due to the sex of the victim is potentially fraught with challenges and difficulties. For an existing offence to be aggravated, this relies on proving that the behaviour is due to the identity (the sex) of the victim, rather than on the nature of the behaviour itself. Focusing on whether the behaviour is due to the sex of the victim is ambiguous and, rather than providing clarity on what constitutes criminal behaviour, it would lead to complex legal debates about the perpetrator’s motivation. It would therefore not capture as many instances of public sexual harassment, or protect as many affected people, as needed.

Furthermore, focusing on whether the offence occurred due to the victim’s perceived sex has a strong possibility of excluding certain marginalised groups. Our approach is not only to criminalise behaviour perpetrated by men against women and marginalised people, but rather to ensure that the legislation can be used by – and against – any gender. The focus is instead upon the behaviour of the offender while recognising the nuances of women and girl’s experiences which is reflected in the discrete drafting of the core constituent elements of the offence in the Bill.

Any legislation covering public sexual harassment must centre on what this offensive conduct actually is: sexual conduct that is unwanted. It must criminalise all sexually intrusive and abusive acts in public that current legislation does not catch, and it must use the language of ‘public sexual harassment’. This is what has been recommended by the Law Commission, and is clearly set out in the Istanbul Convention.

We firmly believe that the law is a powerful tool in advancing the rights of women and girls in society and thus it is imperative that legislation reflects the lived realities of women and girl’s lives. Criminalising public sexual harassment would have an immediate safeguarding and forensic effect and also send a strong symbolic message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Unless you have experienced this pernicious and degrading form of public sexual harassment, you might not understand its long-term impact. But for those that have suffered the harm and continue to, it is an enduring and serious blight on their lives.

Girls deserve better. They deserve to walk home without fear of their safety and attend school without being objectified and humiliated. Such abuse only serves to reinforce women and girl’s subservient status in society. We must challenge such outdated notions – and enlist the law to achieve this vital social ambition.