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The shocking and horrifying events of 2021, including the murder of Sarah Everard, brought renewed and rightful attention to the volume of violence directed against women and girls in public spaces.

Public sexual harassment can affect girls, often from a young age – whether in the form of verbal abuse, sexual gestures, invasion of personal space and non-consensual physical contact, among other acts – yet the issue often does not get the attention it deserves.

While boys can also be victim to sexual harassment, we know that girls are overwhelmingly the target. There is also good evidence that sexual harassment, in all its forms, is harmful to girls’ self-esteem, wellbeing and safety, and that it limits their access to public spaces.

Last year, I called for a new offence of public sexual harassment to be introduced. I’m glad that, as part of its strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, the Government has launched a consultation on a proposal to create such an offence.

I am clear that sexual harassment of girls in public spaces is never acceptable. Certain forms of harassment fall between the gaps of existing legislation, such as ‘catcalling’ and other forms of verbal harassment, leering, and various forms of technology-assisted harassment. A new offence should bring these into scope and provide opportunity for a better targeted response to gendered violence in public spaces.

I will respond in full to the consultation, highlighting what girls have told me and my team about public harassment, and about their views on tackling it. In this blog I want to reflect the voices of girls who talked about this issue in response to my Big Ask survey.

Girls’ experiences of public sexual harassment: voices from the Big Ask

The burden of sexual harassment on girls is enormous, but, has for a long time been invisible. The appalling acts of violence against women which came to attention in 2021brought renewed attention to the issue. And, this was reflected in the Big Ask, my survey of over half a million children, in which teenage girls wrote about feeling unsafe and intimidated in public spaces. As one girl said:

“I occasionally get worried people might want to hurt me when I go home and it is a bit dark” – Girl, 14.

Girls wrote powerfully about how this undermines their self-confidence and ability to participate in the wider community. I heard from one girl who said:

“Sexual harassment is really downgrading the society right now and I feel terrified to live in such a toxic environment, not just myself but for my loved ones and to think I’m going to have to learn how to manipulate my way through life when instead a fair community could make my life that much easier” – Girl, 17.

They also sadly describe a society which downplays and accepts public harassment, as a norm, and leaves perpetrators unpunished. As one girl put it:

“There’s no safety for young people:  harassment and crime, no-one feels safe, girls in uniform get catcalled by creeps … We deserve better. We deserve for things to change” – Girl, 16.

Girls feel responsible for their own protection strategies, which can involve avoiding certain areas and routes home, or planning escape and self-defence. One child wrote about wanting more self-defence lessons at school to help her in the event of a violent situation:

“I think that lots of girls are afraid of thing that will happen to them. For example, harassment or assault, which most girls my age (including me) do not know what to do when this happens. I think we should be taught what to do, like a form of self defence. This is very important to me” – Girl, 11.

Girls as young as 11 wrote about needing to be constantly vigilant, even considering what shoes they wore outside in case they needed to run from danger. As I heard:

“The fact that girls all over the country have to always have an airpod out to listen for danger, to carry self defence skills, to always go home with friends, to wear trainers more often to run away from trouble. Girls are constantly thinking of this at school and it frightens us” – Girl 11.

It is time that we listen to girls and that, as a society, we assume the responsibility of protecting children from all forms of violence and intimidation. I welcome the introduction of a new criminal offence of public sexual harassment to fill gaps in existing legislation – and to reinforce the message, to both children and adults, that harassment is never the victim’s fault.

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