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Many girls feel street harassment is “all part of growing up”. This worrying statement comes from a report by children’s charity Plan International UK, which found that girls as young as eight years old described witnessing or experiencing harassment. While there are no official figures for street harassment in general, according to the British Transport Police the number of recorded sexual offences on trains and in stations in the UK has risen by 16% since 2017 and research conducted in 2015  by and Cornell University and Hollaback! – a global organisation campaigning to end harassment – found that 90% of women in the UK experience street harassment by the time they turn 17.

Although the Home Office has stated that street harassment is a top priority, a report from the Women and Equalities Select Committee said there was “no evidence of any programme to achieve this”. If the Government is to meet its commitment to eliminate sexual harassment against women and girls by 2030 it should make all forms of sexual harassment an offence.

There are some who argue that legislating against the less significant forms of street harassment is simply ridiculous. Martin Daubney former editor of Loaded Magazine has said that criminalising street harassment would make people afraid to talk to each other in the street, add to the ‘over-policing’ of behaviour that stifles individuals’ sense of freedom and foster a culture in which men feel compelled to “defend [themselves] to the death”. Joanna Lumley has argued that it would give in to the demands of a generation which is ‘too soft’ and has started to look for problems where none exist. Such arguments however, are based on a misunderstanding of how criminalisation would function, what freedom means and how street harassment relates to broader societal attitudes towards women.

The criminalisation of sexual harassment is not the same as the criminalisation of genuine compliments and certainly not the same as the criminalisation of conversing with strangers. The criminalisation of sexual harassment is, however, the criminalisation of behaviour intended to exert power and control over women and girls. By criminalising sexual harassment, we provide a clearer definition of what is and is not okay – reducing the need for men to ‘defend themselves to death’ by reducing the risk of someone doing unintentional harm.

Freedom is a fundamental part of UK culture and society and stifling that freedom should never be the aim of the government. However, what opponents of criminalisation fail to recognise is that in the absence of adequate protections, the freedom of women and girls across the UK is stifled every day.  It is not right that fear of street harassment should be a deciding factor in the daily decisions women and girls make -from walking an extra 15 minutes to avoid a dark street to not wearing items of clothing that risk attracting unwanted attention. Far from curtailing freedom, the criminalisation of sexual harassment will enhance the freedoms of the victims.

Finally, there is an important difference between being ‘too soft’ and recognising unacceptable behaviour.  Young women understand that while a wolf-whistle in itself may not be ‘that bad’, it can easily escalate. They know that street harassment is performed out of a desire to exert power and control. Most importantly, they recognise that society’s unwillingness to tackle issues such as street harassment is symptomatic of broader attitudes towards women and their place in society.

In 2016 Nottinghamshire Police expanded the scope of hate crime to include misogyny. This applied to incidents spanning from street harassment through to unwanted physical approaches. The 2018 Misogyny Hate Crime Evaluation Report found that the policy was “shifting attitudes” and recommended rolling it out nationally. Countries such as France, Portugal and Belgium have already criminalised all forms of sexual harassment, no matter how small. We should follow their lead.

Criminalising street harassment will empower women by making them feel safer and deterring potential harassers. Most importantly, it will signal to the UK and the world that the government is serious about delivering on its promise to protect women and girls from all forms of violence.

Kelechi Okeahialam is a member of Bright Blue who recently completed work experience with us. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.