This week will mark a significant milestone in the journey to making sexually harassing women in public a criminal offence.
On Friday – just over one week on from International Women’s Day – my Private Member’s Bill will have its third reading debate in the House of Commons. Following its detailed examination in Committee and the consideration of amendments tabled, this will be the final hurdle it must clear in the House of Commons.
The Bill commands cross-party support and has won the backing of the Government, so I hope that it will pass this next test and go to the House of Lords for further scrutiny there.
The Bill reflects so many discussions that I have had with women and girls here in Tunbridge Wells. For example, just last month I met sixth formers – 17 and 18 years olds – in one of our local secondary schools. I asked the mixed group I was talking with how many of them, when walking in the street at night, would routinely have their keys clenched in their hand in case they were approached and felt in danger. Every single one of the young women in the class immediately put their hand up. Not one of the young men did. In the discussion that followed, the girls described this as being completely standard, instinctive behaviour that they always practised – usually without even thinking about it. The boys present were astonished: none of them had ever contemplated doing so.
To be in a defensive posture against possible attack when walking at night will be the experience of many women readers of this column too, I am sure. If it’s not keys in the hand, it might be speaking – or pretending to speak – on a mobile phone while walking. Or avoiding certain routes home altogether. Why should girls and women – in a place as civilised and comparatively safe as Tunbridge Wells – have to be in a state of fear when using our streets that belong to them as much as they do to men?
The principal purpose of my Bill is to bring about change in behaviour. If it were known that deliberately harassing a woman in a public place with the intention to cause her alarm or distress is more than unkindness, it is a criminal offence will establish that such behaviour is – as it should be – unacceptable. It would bring the law into line with public harassment on the grounds of a person’s race or sexuality, which is widely known to be an offence.
A comparison I sometimes use is with behaviour at football matches. It was not so long ago that to be on the terraces of a league football ground would involve hearing racist abuse directed at players. Nowadays that is extremely rare. This is not just because of action by authorities, but because racial harassment is now considered so serious and shocking by the vast majority of people attending that any perpetrator would be liable to be silenced and excluded by other members of the crowd.
I hope that my Bill, if it passes, will be a historic milestone. It will establish finally and clearly the right of any woman to walk in any public place without being deliberately stalked, harassed or abused. In time, the house keys held clenched in the hand on the way home will be consigned to the past.