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Report it to Stop it

26 November 2015

As a young woman living in London, I have experienced public harassment and I know for a fact that I am not the only one. Indeed, on my way to work this morning I was approached at the bus stop and told I was ‘looking fine today’; perhaps a seemingly innocuous incident, but for me (and many other women) it felt like one instance of a long line of disturbing and persistent examples of harassment.

In fact, public transport is a common site of the kind of harassment that I’m thinking of. Feeling the stare of a stranger, being followed, inappropriate comments, touching and invasion of personal space are sadly the kinds of things that female friends I have spoken to have experienced on the tube. The tube is a disconcerting setting for this to occur because it is the site of everyday commutes, journeys to job interviews, to the pub for a catch up: it is a necessary part of most Londoners’ every day lives and should be a comfortable space; however, it is also somewhere where one can feel trapped, encroached upon and exposed.

Studies carried out by the British Transport Police (BTP) in 2013 show that incidents of sexual harassment on the tube have risen in recent years; however, they also highlighted the very real problem of the lack of reporting of these incidents. In 2013, while 1 in 10 Londoners had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour on the tube, only 10% of those cases were reported to police. Not only do instances go unreported, but often women will question whether cases are even worth reporting; whether that dubious stroke from the man standing uncomfortably close behind you really counts as harassment. More often than not, it does, and if we are to stop it it should be reported.

A couple of weeks ago, the BTP released a video titled ‘Report it to Stop it’ which aims to encourage more women experiencing harassment on the tube to report the incident by using a simple texting service. [Embed link?] This is part of the Project Guardian, a collaboration between the BTP, Metropolitan Police Service and City of London Police which aims to crack down on harassment on London transport. A similar initiative, Project Empower, had been launched in the West Midlands.

The emphasis in these projects has been that no incident is too small and should go unreported: if you have been made to feel uncomfortable in any way, then the BTP pledges to take it seriously and investigate. In the video, we see a woman experiencing different levels of harassment, and as the situation escalates, we are asked ‘would you report this?’. The bottom line is that if you were made to feel uncomfortable, then it should be reported. The BTP emphasises that even if it may have been an accident, or you are worried it isn’t necessarily ‘serious enough’, you should report it and leave the investigating to them. Simply text 61016 and state what happened, where the said incident occurred and when – spread the word to women you know who use the tube. Tackling sexual harassment requires not only structures like this to exist, but also for the victims to speak out and take that first step. And maybe if more people start speaking up, it will set the example to others that this kind of harassment is unacceptable.

When I talk to my parents about the kind of public harassment that my friends and I have experienced they are often shocked – for people who don’t use public transport regularly they cannot believe that these things happen so casually. That’s exactly why we need initiatives like the Everyday Sexism Project; a forum for women to share experiences of everyday harassment and sexism with the aim to expose the need to address this problem. Everyday Sexism sets an example for women experiencing sexism that every instance is unacceptable. If we can cultivate a culture where more women speak up about sexual harassment then we can start creating safer spaces for everyone. In a way, this too is the ethos of Jewish Women’s Aid (JWA). JWA’s ‘spot the woman living with abuse’ campaign highlights that it’s not always easy to detect domestic abuse and JWA exists to provide support for those women who do seek help. However, just as the woman on the tube needs to speak up and text the BTP and talk about her experiences with those around her, victims of domestic violence and others around them need to take that leap of faith and contact JWA: essentially, in both cases we need to ‘report it to stop it’.

Hayley Sims