Harassment is human rights crisis: UN agency

Tragic outcome: Sarah Everard is just one of thousands of victims worldwide.

Do ALL men need to change? As a police officer is arrested over the disappearance of a London woman, some say it is time for men everywhere to act to prevent gender violence.

Each March, to mark International Women’s Day, Jess Phillips stands up in the British parliament and reads aloud the name of every woman killed by a man in the UK in the past 12 months.

In 2020, it took the politician more than four minutes to complete the terrible count. Yesterday, as Phillips neared the end of yet another grim toll, there was only one name on everybody’s mind.

“Her name rings out across all of our media,” Phillips concluded. “We have all prayed that the name of Sarah Everard would never be on any list.”

Sarah Everard was walking home from a friend’s house in south London on a cold winter evening when she suddenly vanished last week.

For days, her friends and family searched frantically for any signs of what may have happened to the 33-year-old.

But a week to the day since she disappeared, the search came to an awful conclusion. On Wednesday, London’s Metropolitan Police Force made a shocking announcement: they had arrested one of their own officers on suspicion of Sarah’s murder.

The news sent shockwaves around the country. Yet for Jess Phillips, it was just another example of an “epidemic” of violence against women and girls.

The statistics speak for themselves. A shocking new survey by UN Women UK found that 80% of women say that they have been sexually harassed in public spaces. For women aged 18 to 24, this figure rises to an incredible 97%.

“This is a human rights crisis,” says UN Women UK’s executive director Claire Barnett. “It’s just not enough for us to keep saying ‘this is too difficult a problem for us to solve’ – it needs addressing now.”

But this problem is not unique to Britain. Worldwide, 35% of women have experienced physical or sexual violence. And every hour, six women are killed by men around the globe.

Back in London, as news of Sarah Everard’s disappearance spread, the case prompted discussion of the fear many women say is part of the universal female experience.

Online, women recounted tales of attending self-defence classes, being given rape alarms at school and concocting escape plans for every situation from the age of eight.

Now, as women share their stories, some say society needs to fundamentally rethink the way it deals with male violence.

Journalist Sascha O’Sullivan believes there needs to be a “radical culture shift”. Sexual harassment and assault should not be examples of “women’s issues”, cared about and fought for only by women, she argues. Instead, the conversation needs to start with men.

And this time, it is not just women who are calling for change. “That women’s fears are not fully acknowledged in our national life is, I’m afraid, down to a failure by men, a failure to take that female fear of violence – and violence itself – seriously enough,” declares writer James Kirkup.

Indeed, for Jess Phillips, as she finished recalling another year of victims in Westminster, one thing was clear: “It’s a problem of men’s behaviour, not women’s behaviour.”

Do all men need to change?

Global problem

Of course not, say some. The vast majority of men are decent and law-abiding citizens. We should not ask all men to take responsibility for the crimes of an individual. Tragic cases like that of Sarah Everard are, fortunately, extremely rare. They appall all genders equally. It is only the few men who do harass or abuse women who should change their behaviour.

Yes, say others. Jess Phillips is right. Women’s complaints of violence, harassment and everyday misogyny are too often dismissed and disregarded. Nobody is saying that all men are bad. Rather, it is the responsibility of all good men to consider the experiences of women and girls and call out the abusive behaviour of other men. In the face of abuse, it is not women who should change.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel safe walking in the street?
  2. What should the punishment be for men who harass women?

Activities

  1. Design a poster to raise awareness of sexual harassment and violence, either in your country or worldwide. Use the expert links to help you.
  2. In groups, make a list of five things men can do to prevent violence or abuse.

Some People Say...

“It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.”

Desmond Tutu (1931 – ), South African cleric and activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that sexual harassment and abuse is vastly underreported to authorities in most regions of the world. The survey of 1,000 women by UN Women UK found that only 4% of the women questioned reported incidents of sexual harassment. Another study by the UK’s Trade Union Congress found that four in five women did not report sexual harassment at work, whilst 16% of the women who did report it said they were treated worse as a result.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds what can be done to prevent street harassment. Many activists say that one obvious answer is criminalising public sexual harassment. In the UK, a petition set up by sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton, aged 21 and 15, has received more than 220,000 signatures. Their petition is based on a law already in place in France – eight months after the law came into effect in 2018, French police had issued 450 fines for sexual harassment.

Word Watch

Jess Phillips
Phillips, a Labour Member of Parliament, represents an area of Birmingham. She is also the Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding.
Terrible count
Phillips included every woman killed in a case where a man has been convicted or charged as the primary perpetrator. This year, she read out 118 names.
Sarah Everard
Everard’s name was not included in the final list this year because at the time Phillips spoke, police had not charged anyone with her murder.
Officers
The arrested man worked protecting diplomatic buildings. Later, police said they had found human remains.
UN Women UK
The organisation is calling for better designed public spaces, improved reporting systems and education as part of their Safe Spaces Now project.
Concocting
To prepare or make. The word originates from the Latin “concoquere”, meaning “cooked together”.
Westminster
A district in central London which is home to Britain’s Houses of Parliament and many other government buildings.
Misogyny
Feelings of hating women, the belief that men are much better than women.

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