Thursday, May 13, 2021
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It’s up to men — and the Government — to make our streets safe

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Seeing the numbers who gathered to remember Sarah Everard at Clapham Common was inspiring but heartbreaking. It’s so sad it took her death for people to really focus on an issue that has been there this whole time. I co-founded Our Streets Now — a campaign group to end public sexual harassment  — with my elder sister Maya. In the last two weeks we’ve gained 200,000 new signatures on our petition. We’ve had 10,000 people email their MPs. It’s a sign of the sudden interest in this long-standing problem.

I’m now 16 but started experiencing public sexual harassment aged 11. I was coming out of primary school wearing shorts and I remember skipping down the high street when a car with two men inside slowed down next to me. The men started making comments about my body and I remember thinking it was my fault. It was terrifying because I didn’t understand what they were saying to me and what it meant — I ran to a friend’s house and cried.

It got worse over time. I was once walking past a café on the way home from school and three men started sexually harassing me. I was fed up after a long day of being the local feminist at school, having to explain women’s basic human rights to boys. I turned round and I said, “I’m 13, leave me alone”. And they laughed at me.

In 2018, France made verbal sexual harassment illegal. Maya and I were born in France and thought — if they can take this step why can’t we? Public sexual harassment has been linked to mental health problems in women in the long term— depression, body image issues, anxiety. It restricts our freedom — public space is not ours and is not safe for us. It’s heightened for LQBTQ+ people, people of colour and disabled people.

On Monday I went back to school for the first time in a while. It was quite hard being around people who had bullied me for being a feminist in the past. People have shouted homophobic slurs at me too. I think schools have been overlooked in feminist movements. There just isn’t the support in place to deal with the scale of harassment that takes place. Children need to be taught not to target people just because of who they are. There needs to be education about it to teach girls it’s not their fault — that would really have helped me. And to teach boys not to do it. The lack of education led to my sister, who was 15, having to explain to me what gender-based violence was and that it would not stop and that the experiences would become worse as I got older.

On Thursday news came that the Government has told police forces to start recording misogyny as a hate crime. That is something that we whole-heartedly support. We’ve had lots of meetings with Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy and support her.  It’s a step in the right direction. But we must go further. Our Streets Now is calling for specific legislation addressing public harassment —without that, reporting it is very hard.

Whether or not the rage we’ve seen this week leads to real change is still to be seen. It’s up to the Government to act and for men to act too. Everyone – parent, teacher, MP – must stand up and take action. In the mean time I’ll be continuing my fight.

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