The Government’s New Hate Crime Action Plan: Is Catcalling Finally Being Taken Seriously?

Young woman walking down street

In my previous article, I wrote about the severity of hate crimes against women and the extent to which the police, officials and individuals are taking it seriously. Well, on Tuesday the Home Secretary published a new action plan setting out how the government will tackle hate crime over the next four years, including specific offences for “racially and religiously aggravated activity and offences of the stirring up of hatred on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation”. It is questionable whether this action plan will seriously tackle the issue of catcalling or whether the rest of the UK will follow Nottingham’s lead by classifying catcalling and other verbal abuse towards women as hate crimes.

The UK has undoubtedly seen an increase in hate crime, especially in the midst of brexit. Even the government’s action plan admits that, “in the days after the EU referendum, some European nationals were the targets of abuse, and representatives of other ethnic communities have reported anxiety about a climate of increased hostility towards people identified as foreigners”. Former Conservative parliamentary candidate Shazia Awan was subject to abuse via Twitter after the referendum, being told to pack her bags and go home; when someone pointed out that she was a British citizen, they responded “if a pig is born in a stable doesn’t mean it’s a horse”. Such is the extent of the problem that the UK has seen a 20% increase in reported hate crimes in the first two weeks of July, compared with the same period in 2015.

Clearly a solution to hate crime in the UK is seriously needed. However is Amber Rudd’s action plan good enough? Will this effectively increase the reporting of, support for, and response to hate crimes – especially towards women?

According to the government’s action plan, a hate crime is defined as ‘any crime that is motivated by hostility on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity’.

Sexual orientation and transgender identity are included within their definition of a hate crime and quite rightly so, but the definition fails to consider gender. As a matter of fact, throughout the whole publication, gender is mentioned only once when the government claim they are, “committed to working with social media companies and Internet providers to address the problem” of online abuse based on gender.

In a 12,000-word document solely focused on hate crimes, four and a half lines are dedicated to gender. Four. And. A. Half. Lines. That’s about 0.4%. Evidently a crime that is motivated by the hostility towards a persons sex will not be the focus of the government’s action plan and, more importantly, is not actually classified as a hate crime in the UK.

Why is gender-based abuse – notably towards women – treated less seriously than abuse directed at a person because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity? This is not to suggest that these other forms of discrimination aren’t a severe problem, nor that gender-based abuse is necessarily more important. This does however highlight that sexism is still not being taken seriously as a hate crime within the UK.  Without explicitly saying it – the government has effectively announced the continued legitimacy of men to shout at a woman in the street, simply because she is a woman.

This is not to demerit the government’s plan for tackling hate crime.

The 2016 Action Plan undoubtedly focuses on some extremely important and marginalized issues and the governments exiting initiatives provide a big leap forward. For example, I have seen first hand how the “Report it to stop it campaign” can really tackle harassment towards women. However, completely ignoring crimes motivated by someone’s gender, especially towards women, is dangerous and will reinforce the normalisation of catcalling and verbal harassment towards women within society. Essentially the government’s action plan is a good response to increase in post-Brexit hate crimes, however it completely ignores and therefore downplays the severity of hate crimes towards women.

In a statement responding to the illegalities of stalking in the UK, David Cameron claimed, “we have harassment laws in this country. We are not proposing to criminalise wolf-whistling … we are talking about a serious issue of harassment and stalking and domestic violence abuse”. Cameron’s dismissal of the severity of ‘wolf-whistling’ in 2012 is echoed in the current government’s action plan. I cannot comprehend how in 2016 Britain, when incidences of this nature happen on an every day basis, verbal sexual harassment towards women is deemed not important enough to be classified as a hate crime.

Children in the future will look back at this – as we might look back at a time when laws so obvious to us now were not in place – and think ‘why did it take so long?’

Bryony Vince

Bry studies International Relations and Politcs at The University of Sheffield.

Follow Bry – @Bryvince

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