Almost nine years after signing the Istanbul Convention (IC), the United Kingdom has yet to ratify it. Turkey’s recent withdrawal from the IC makes now the perfect time for the UK to send an important message. The legal protection of women and girls is essential, and could catalyse a shift in our society’s towards a better understanding of how they should be able to enjoy public spaces.
Identified as the most common form of gender-based violence within the UK, public sexual harassment (PSH) lacks any specific legislation to tackle it. PSH can be anything from unwelcome and unwanted attention, sexual advances and intimidating behaviour that occurs in public spaces, happening both in-person and online. Not all experiences of PSH are the same and, as an intersectional issue, different identity categories influence an individual’s experience.
Despite several countries – including France, Peru and Chile – implementing legislation to tackle PSH, the UK still refuses either to ratify the IC or to enforce a dedicated legal framework to tackle violence against women and girls (VAWG). Given the recent tragic death of Sarah Everard, coupled with the findings by UN Women UK that 97% of women aged between 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment and 80% of women of all ages have experienced PSH, the need for ratification and additional legislation is blatant.
Beyond just the UK, a 2014 survey by the European Union (EU) Fundamental Rights Agency revealed that sexual harassment was the most prevalent form of violence against women across the EU. As a result, countries such as France and Portugal have implemented legislative measures. In 2018, France introduced a law allowing on-the-spot fines of up to €750. Within the first eight months, 447 fines had been handed out for street harassment. Backed by 90% of the French public, these laws provide the building blocks to form better protection for women and girls across France.
British law must go further still. As 97% of young women have experiences of sexual harassment, it is unlikely that the perpetrators of these incidents would have been caught committing the offence by police if a similar law had been in place. Instead, legislation similar to that in Chile (where Fair Planet report that 85% of women had experienced harassment prior to legislation) could prove more beneficial at protecting women, girls, and marginalised genders as laws carry financial penalties as well as possible jail time for those found guilty. Yet still, the UK is in a unique position regarding VAWG.
In 2016, former Prime Minister and then Home Secretary Theresa May said in her department’s Ending Violence Against Women Strategy that “no woman should live in fear of violence, and every girl should grow up knowing she is safe, so that she can have the best start in life”. The Government argued that their strengthened legislative framework was underpinned by work to change the attitudes to prevent offences and improve police response. Yet five years later, particularly following the harrowing death of Sarah Everard, thousands of women across the UK are sharing their countless stories of PSH online. The lack of legislation, alongside the normalisation of harassment in UK culture and communities, has deterred women from reporting these offences.
All of these statistics present the fundamental need for legislation against PSH. This is crucial to prevent an environment and culture that disregards historically vulnerable and oppressed groups of people, diminishes their sense of self-worth, and denies equal access to public space.
The UK government must do more. It must protect and prepare its citizens by ratifying the Istanbul Convention and introduce a new bill. Turkey’s departure should not be viewed as an excuse for the UK to ignore their failings. Instead the UK should use this as a platform to steer and encourage other global powers into signing, ratifying and ensuring that their country enshrines the safety and legal protection that women and girls so desperately need.
Kendal Sefton is Researcher, Public Affairs and Partnerships Officer at Our Streets Now.