“When I was in year nine in my school uniform, a car drove past and I heard a heckle of horrible very sexually violent stuff the guys wanted to do me,” Jess Leigh tells The Independent. “I thought it was my fault for not smiling enough or smiling too much.”
Ms Leigh, now 20, did not tell anyone what had happened. On the contrary, she wracked her brain wondering whether she was to blame for the sexual harassment she had endured.
“I wondered whether my skirt was too high,” she adds. “When in reality it would not matter what I was wearing. They would have shouted. All these so-called little experiences add up. I have anxiety now.”
Ms Leigh, who is studying International Development at Sussex University, welcomed the government’s new Violence Against Women And Girls strategy which was unveiled on Wednesday.
“This strategy is the first step but we need to make sure laws and education are changed,” she adds. “I don’t want the next generation to have to go through what I went through”.
Ms Leigh said sexual harassment was massively normalised when she was at school. While sexual assault was never talked about.
“It was a taboo subject,” she adds. “It was only when I started talking to my friends about experiences of sexual harassment in public that we realised these experiences were significant and changed our whole view of ourselves and our bodies.”
She recalled a letter being sent round to pupils and parents when she was 11-years-old after a friend of hers was flashed while walking home. Students were told to avoid the part of the woods where her friend was flashed despite it being a key route pupils took to get home.
“When I was 15 or 16, I developed a really bad relationship with food,” she explains. “A lot of it came from constantly experiencing sexual violence and hearing about it and feeling like it was my fault. And feeling inadequate, scared and angry that I had to put up with it. I had no idea where to put this anger and blame so I put it on myself.”
Ms Leigh is by no means alone. Data from Plan International UK, shared exclusively with The Independent, shows almost two million girls around the country are forced to change how they live their lives as a direct result of being sexually harassed in public places.
Some two thirds of girls aged between 14 and 21 have altered their behaviour to avoid sexual harassment in public spaces, the leading charity found. Girls are avoiding doing exercise and even going to school due to being anxious about being harassed, as well as choosing not to venture out of their houses at night, and not wearing the clothes they want to wear.
Around a third of girls have pretended they were on the phone, while a quarter have walked with keys in their hands, and around two in ten had lied to tell someone they have a boyfriend or girlfriend or handed out a fake number.
Eva, a young woman who did not want her surname used, said she was training for a marathon so is experiencing sexual harassment in public virtually every day while out for jogs.
“When I was much younger I didn’t exercise at all in public after a man in a van shouted about my breasts while I was running - I was 11-years-old,” she adds. “This meant that I was severely restricted during my teenage years and both my mental and physical health suffered.”
The 19-year-old, who is from Liverpool, said she is perpetually “conscious” of the clothes she is wearing and the remarks they may “elicit” from men. She says she avoids certain routes at night even if it could make her wind up being late.
The study found around a third of girls say sexual harassment has had a detrimental impact on their mental health and wellbeing, while almost a quarter said it had led to them avoiding their usual route to school, university or their workplace.
Rose Caldwell, chief executive of Plan International UK, said: “We are very disappointed that the government’s Violence Against Women and Girls strategy does not include new legislation to tackle public sexual harassment. Without a new law, millions of girls will be left unprotected.
“However, the government has recognised that this is an urgent issue that needs more attention. We urge the government to quickly deliver its promise to review gaps in the legislation - and then it must commit to a new Public Sexual Harassment Law.
“Girls as young as ten are being harassed, followed and touched. It is extraordinary that if a girl is going to school on the train and a man leans against her; presses his body against her, invades her space and whispers obscene comments in her ear, she is not protected by existing laws.”
Priti Patel has suggested street harassment could become a specific crime as part of the government’s Violence Against Women and Girls strategy. More than 180,000 people have contributed to the plan which will create a rape and sexual assault helpline which is open 24/7 and see so-called virginity tests and procedures claiming to repair the hymen at UK clinics made illegal in England and Wales.
A recent survey by UN Women revealed 97 per cent of young women in the UK said they had been sexually harassed, while 80 per cent reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces.
The poll of more than 1,000 women, aged between 18 and 24, found the sexual harassment included being groped, followed and coerced into sexual activity.
Previous research carried out by Plan International UK found one in three girls in this country has been harassed in their school uniforms.
While prosecutions and convictions for sexual assault and rape reached record lows last year – with government data showing in the year to March 2020 that just 1.4 per cent of 55,130 rape cases recorded by police had resulted in prosecution.
“I have experienced multiple forms of public sexual harassment, including being followed, groped, and shouted at,” Sophia, who also did not want her surname used, said.
The 26-year-old, who is from London, said if she is in a quiet area and hears footsteps close by she starts walking much faster - adding that she always takes a big bag which has flat shoes inside if she is going out in heels. “This constant ‘safety work’ is exhausting and the relentless harassment makes me feel unsafe, violated and powerless,” she adds.