Schools should take action to prevent the sexual harassment of girls by putting in place policies and practices that teach "healthy relationships, consent and boundaries", a group of MPs has said.
The Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee said that schools shouldn’t wait for the introduction of mandatory relationships and sex education to take “every possible action to prevent sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence”.
The recommendation came as the committee published a report on sexual harassment of women and girls in public places, which included accounts of girls in school uniform receiving wolf-whistles and harassment from men.
“Girls often first experienced sexual harassment below the age of 18,” the report states.
“We were particularly disturbed to hear from a number of women about the sexual harassment they experienced as a girl from men and boys."
Girls as young as 8 sexually harassed
One woman told the committee that "her worst memories of sexual harassment were of walking home from school wearing school uniform".
She had to walk down a busy road to get home and “it was normal for men to lean out of vans to wolf-whistle or to shout inappropriate things at me".
The woman recalled one occasion when she was under 18, in which a man shouted: "Great tits, can I have some pussy?’”
The report says that “even more disturbingly”, some girls reported their first experience of harassment occurring below the age of 10.
One woman told the committee that she had “experienced sexual harassment in public since I was a young child". "I remember the first time I was [under 12]… I continued to be sexually harassed almost daily throughout my childhood,” she said.
The committee referred to research from 2016 by Plan International UK, a children’s charity which has campaigned against harassment.
Many of the girls in the research described witnessing or experiencing the harassment of girls aged 8 and upwards. Respondents said that girls in uniform were “a particular target, with girls describing feeling fetishised by ‘older men targeting school girls’”.
The report also includes an account of a girl who was sexually harassed on the London Underground. “Another participant was 14 and in her school uniform when she was trapped in a carriage alone with a man who was masturbating,” the report says.
In their recommendations, the MPs say that the introduction of relationships education in primary schools and RSE in secondary schools “provides a welcome opportunity to ensure that concepts such as healthy relationships, consent and boundaries are communicated to children”.
But they go on: “It is disappointing that the statutory guidance will not come into force until September 2020, and we urge schools not to wait until then to review their policies and practices to ensure they are taking every possible action to prevent sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence.”
The report adds that “opportunities to embed a preventative approach in schools, through media regulation, through public awareness campaigns and through crime policy… are being missed”.
The MPs say that the government's refreshed violence against women and girls strategy, due later this year, should set out a “comprehensive programme of work to make all public places safe for women and girls”.