Sexual harassment including indecent exposure has got worse since lockdown, say women

‘If anything had happened, the nearest place open was a supermarket, but it was still a long walk away,’ says young woman

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Thursday 30 April 2020 07:06
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The poll of over 1,000 women, who were aged between 14 and 21, discovered cat-calling and even sexual assault has persisted despite the fact there are substantially less people out and about
The poll of over 1,000 women, who were aged between 14 and 21, discovered cat-calling and even sexual assault has persisted despite the fact there are substantially less people out and about

Young women say sexual harassment, including men indecently exposing themselves, has become worse during the lockdown, a study has found.

One in five women have suffered harassment on the streets since the government implemented stringent social distancing measures — with a fifth of them saying the issue of harassment has got worse during lockdown, Plan International UK said.

The poll of more than 1,000 women aged between 14 and 21 discovered cat-calling and even sexual assault has persisted despite the fact there are substantially fewer people out and about.

One in 10 girls have received unwanted attention, including having insults yelled at them, while one in 10 said they have endured unwanted sexual attention, unwanted sexual or physical contact, or even men indecently exposing themselves to them on the street.

Researchers found a quarter of girls who had suffered harassment chose not to let anyone else know about their ordeal.

Lockdown measures urge people to avoid all non-essential travel, work from home where possible, only leave the house to buy food from a nearby shop or to exercise once a day.

The study, released as Britain prepares to start its seventh week of lockdown, found more than a quarter of girls feel less safe outside in the wake of the lockdown.

Of these girls, one in four feel in danger while exercising outside alone, while one third feel unsafe while taking a trip to the shop on their own. One third had stopped themselves from venturing out of the house at some point during lockdown.

Josie, a 22-year-old woman from South Wales, said: “I haven’t really been going out for walks because I’m isolating with someone who is in the high-risk category. When I have though, it’s usually at night, as that’s when the fewest people seem to be out. Despite us being in a global pandemic, I still got a catcall last night. The worrying thing is that when walking out and about at night, there are fewer people around to help if anything potentially goes wrong.”

Atlanta, an 18-year-old woman from Manchester, said: “I’m a key worker, and even during the pandemic, male customers are looking at me and making inappropriate comments. One called me ‘baby’ and told me my boyfriend must be a lucky man.

“I’ve also never really felt safe doing exercise outside, and during lockdown I’ve noticed that male gaze more. I was out running by a road recently and a van honked at me, then a cyclist cycled past and kept turning his head back to look at me. If anything had happened, the nearest place open was a supermarket, but it was still a long walk away. It makes me feel uncomfortable running on my own and I won’t be going down that road again.”

Over half of the girls who felt more in danger during lockdown said the fear was linked to the fact there are fewer people on the streets to intervene if a dangerous situation were to arise. Two in five said there were fewer shops, restaurants and other places open to seek help if they needed to escape someone’s advances. A third attributed their worry to feeling like the police are too preoccupied with other issues during the crisis.

Rose Caldwell, Plan International UK’s chief executive, said: “Despite being in a national lockdown, these shocking new stats reveal that girls continue to be catcalled, groped and harassed when they go out for exercise, for essentials, or even to work. It’s making them feel ashamed, angry, and in some cases too scared to even go outside.

“Harassment at any time can be frightening, but the lockdown means that fewer places are open for girls to escape to if something does happen to them, and there are fewer people outside to help intervene. Social distancing means they’re likely to be on their own rather than in groups so may feel more vulnerable. And it’s a time of heightened anxiety, so encountering harassment can feel more difficult to deal with for some.

“Many girls said they feel less able to report what’s happening to them as others might not see it as a priority right now. So we need to send a clear message that street harassment is not OK, and that girls have the right to tell someone if they are harassed. Now more than ever, every city, park, and public space must be safe for girls and young women. We cannot allow the lockdown to turn back the clock on girls’ rights.”

Maya and Gemma Tutton, two sisters who run the Our Streets Now campaign to end street harassment, said the latest study ”reflects and reinforces” many of the testimonies they have received since the coronavirus outbreak.

“Public sexual harassment has not only continued but actually worsened under lockdown,” the sisters said. “Girls tell us of feeling unsafe, afraid and of limiting their time outdoors because of this harassment. The UK government must act against this form of gender-based violence and introduce a specific criminal offence tackling public sexual harassment. We all deserve to feel safe and be safe in public space.”

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