Criminalising street harassment and kerb crawling is a much needed first step to keep women and girls safe
Currently it’s not a criminal offence for a man in a vehicle to follow a woman or girl; call out to her, film her, try to get her into the vehicle, pester her. That is terrifying and should be an offence punishable by taking away his driving licence.
“She was just walking home” are the 5 words that have come to sum up the horror at the appalling killing of Sarah Everard. It was a tragedy which so many women can relate to because they experience daily intimidation and threats from men on the streets, particularly when they are on their own and after dark.
The outpouring of women sharing their everyday experiences on social media has created an unstoppable momentum which is challenging the impunity of men who harass women and girls.
Harassment of women on the streets by men following them, or kerb-crawling them in their cars is not new. There were protests in the 1970s when women objected to being told to stay home after a spate of brutal murders in Leeds. But the protests of women went nowhere. The men in the corridors of power didn’t listen. It never even reached the political agenda let alone precipitated change. But now we have social media to amplify women’s experiences, there is an expectation among women that their concerns will be acted on. There are now women in those corridors of power whose duty it is to deliver.
Let’s not put this down to women’s feelings or their frailty. This is about men’s awful, menacing behaviour and it’s time it stopped
We should introduce new criminal offences so that the criminal law gives women and girls protection and sends a strong message to men. Currently kerb-crawling is a criminal offence if the man is seeking a prostitute. But it’s not an offence for a man in a van to kerb-crawl following a lone schoolgirl on her way home after dark; calling out to her, filming her, trying to get her into the van, pestering her. That is terrifying and should be an offence punishable by taking away his driving licence.
Currently harassment is only a crime if a man persistently harasses a woman with a threatening “course of conduct”. But all harassment of women and girls should be a crime, even if it’s the first time. The criminal justice system too readily blames the woman and lets the man off the hook. That’s evident in trials for rape and sexual assault where the defendant drags out the victim’s previous sexual history to try and prejudice the jury and undermine her confidence. It ends up feeling like it’s her in the dock not him. No wonder so many rape victims don’t report the crime or have the courage to see through a prosecution. Using previous sexual history in evidence should have been banned from 1999, but it still happens so the law needs toughening up.
There’s a great deal of cross-party support for these measures. I’ve tabled amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill with the backing of Caroline Nokes, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, and Sir Peter Bottomley, Father of the House along with over 45 MPs from 6 parties. The home secretary has made it clear that she’ll look seriously at new law.
The Prime Minister says that we need culture change. But that shouldn’t let the government off the hook. Culture change is led by government action. Tough laws against men menacing women on the street will drive that culture change.
Let’s have less talk by men of their concerns that women “feel” unsafe on the streets. It’s not subjective. It’s a fact. Women are not safe from men acting in a predatory way. Let’s not put this down to women’s feelings or their frailty. This is about men’s awful, menacing behaviour and it’s time it stopped.
Harriet Harman is the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and Mother of the House.
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