It was a normal day in Year 9. My best friend and I were walking home from school in our uniforms, a stuffy combo of navy blue polo-neck shirts and grey skirts. It was around the time I liked wearing funky socks to school, so my feet and ankles were kitted out in cupcakes. Though my memory of other details of that day has faded, something happened that I remember now with vivid detail, 10 years on.
Two men, hanging out of the window of a work van, shouted at us. One whistled and yelled something along the lines of, "Alright, sluts!" They drove off, laughing.
Though on the less physically and emotionally harmful side of the sexual harassment scale, this catcall by two grown men directed at two 14-year-olds wearing their school uniforms feels no less salient now. And despite the era of #MeToo, it’s still happening to young women and girls on an unacceptable scale.
A new report from girls’ rights charity Plan International UK today reveals that 35% of girls in Britain have been sexually harassed in public while wearing their school uniforms. The survey of 1,004 girls aged 14-21 found they had received unwanted attention such as being groped, catcalled and wolf-whistled in public places. All while wearing their school uniforms.
I was in school uniform and sat on a train and this guy kept trying to put his hand on my leg. I was like, 'What am I supposed to do?'
Most women have either heard of or experienced instances of girls being sexually harassed in public places. A friend tells me that a man approached her in the street when she was 13 and wearing her school uniform, which included old-fashioned knee-high knitted socks, and called her a "spicy Asian". A colleague tells the story of a family member who, aged 11, was groped by a man in a bookshop. She was in the children’s section.
It goes without saying that this kind of behaviour is outdated and stomach-turning at best. While we think we’ve come so far, clearly not much has changed for the prospects of underage girls since I myself was one.
"It's simply not acceptable that girls as young as 12 have been wolf-whistled at in public, touched against their will, stared at or even followed," said Lucy Russell, Plan International UK’s Head of Girls’ Rights. One in eight of those surveyed was 12 years old when they had their first experience of unwanted sexual attention or contact.
Out of the girls surveyed, one in seven said they had been followed while wearing a school uniform. Meanwhile, 8% said they had been filmed or photographed by a stranger without their consent or had been a victim of upskirting while wearing a school skirt.
"When I was 15, I was in school uniform and sat on a train and this guy kept trying to put his hand on my leg. I was like, 'What am I supposed to do?' I ended up getting off the train at the next stop and just being completely lost," said Jess, a 16-year-old from Glasgow.
"It was such a horrible experience… I think the worst part was feeling guilty because I was wearing a skirt, which is stupid because it shouldn’t matter what I was wearing, but in the moment it did."
Asking in-depth, open questions about their experiences of street harassment, the survey found "loud and clear" that girls do not feel safe in public spaces, said Russell. "They don't feel safe on the streets, they don't feel safe online, and they don't feel safe in classrooms."
According to the report, 28% of girls said they avoided going out at night due to harassment or fear of harassment. "[It] really worries me that girls don't feel safe to just enjoy an evening out, use public transport, use public spaces. How can that be the condition in this country right now?"
Street harassment needs to be looked straight in the face and treated for what it is: an attempted assertion of power and intentional demeaning of women.
A chaotic patchwork of school, hormones and early romantic relationships means navigating adolescence is already terrifying. Unwanted touching or having their underwear snapped on a stranger’s phone while wearing school uniform sends a crystal-clear message to young women that their bodies are up for grabs before they’ve even finished their GCSEs.
It’s beyond disappointing that the situation hasn’t improved in the decade since I was 14. It’s time for girls to be able to live normally and without life-altering harassment.
A global movement to resist street harassment is already simmering. Anti-harassment apps are launching rapidly in India, Lebanon and the United States, women’s centres are training women in self-defence in Canada, Kenya and the US. Plan International is also helping local authorities in Egypt investigate which areas girls don’t feel safe in.
But it is a cultural shift that will end casual street harassment once and for all. Russell said people need to stop laughing and treating it as "just a joke". Better sex education in schools for all children and teaching acceptable behaviour is also fundamental.
Girls need to be put at the forefront and listened to, Russell added. "Our starting point is to stop it being a part of day-to-day life and supporting girls because they're saying 'this really bothers us'."
Plan International UK is pushing for the British government to recognise street harassment as a form of gender-based violence.
In the meantime, street harassment needs to be looked straight in the face and treated for what it is: an attempted assertion of power and intentional demeaning of women.
As Russell said: "If we keep calling [it] out, we keep saying it's not okay, that's when we can start to see change."