Is Freedom From Street Harassment a Human Right?
Street harassment is a big problem. Well, for women, anyway. A recent report by UK charity Plan International details the reality of street harassment for girls and young women in the UK, finding that 66% of girls have experienced sexual attention or sexual or physical contact in a public place. 38% of girls experience verbal harassment — like cat-calling, wolf-whistling, and sexual comments at least once a month.
The results are tragic and unquantifiable. Girls report chronically self-monitoring their appearance, having a hugely detrimental impact on self-esteem. Girls may also experience insidious trauma — that is, trauma generated from low levels of discrimination experienced across a lifetime — resulting in greater risks of experiencing the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One study cited in the report found 80% of participants experienced at least one symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of sexual harassment.
This information is not entirely new. Psychologists in the 1990s posited ‘Objectification Theory’ whereby women and girls are taught to internalize an outsider’s view of their body. The consequence of this is to divide women’s attention between what they are observing and what other people are observing, which has been shown to impair their mental concentration and interrupt their ‘flow’. In the long-term, it can cause depression, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders.
Ok, It’s a Problem, But Should it be a Human Right?
The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission defines human rights as:
[T]he basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death. They apply regardless of where you are from, what you believe or how you choose to live your life.
They can never be taken away, although they can sometimes be restricted — for example if a person breaks the law, or in the interests of national security.
To an extent, what is (and what’s not) a human right is up for grabs. Anyone willing to fight for it can enter the arena. Although human rights tend to appear natural or inherent (you usually agree when someone tells you that you have a right not to be tortured), that does not mean that what we think of as ‘natural’ or ‘inherent’ can’t change over time.
The last major global re-think of what human rights there are was in the 1970s, when the majority of countries in the world signed the two major global human rights treaties (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Countries also debated women’s rights in the 1970s, and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations in 1979.
How Can It Be A Human Right, if Street Harassment Mostly Affects Women?
Well, historically, men have been the principal beneficiaries of human rights protections. That’s because human rights have tended to focus on people’s relationship with the government, and what the government can and cannot do to us. They can’t torture us, kill us (without a legal basis such as the death penalty), restrict our speech, or stop us from voting. Since, historically, political dissidents have predominantly been men, they have benefited more from these protections. Women benefited too, just not to the same extent.
In the same way, men can still benefit from a human right to be free from street harassment. While the Plan UK report found boys are much less likely than girls to experience sexual harassment in public, gay, bi-sexual, trans or non-binary boys can also be victims, with sexual harassment intersecting with homophobia.
Doesn’t the Right Step on Freedom of Expression?
Freedom of expression is an important right. One of its main purposes is to ensure people in society can speak out against governments. We should be able to speak our minds, but when that starts encroaching on other people’s rights, leaving a traumatic impact, limits might need to be imposed.
In the same way rape cannot be justified as an instance of free expression, street harassment, arguably on the same continuum of sexual abuse as rape, which induces insidious trauma and chronic self-monitoring, ought to be limited to instances where the subject consents.
So, Is it a Human Right?
Not yet!* But what we think of as important enough to be deemed a ‘human right’ may change over time. As Open Borders advocate Steve Sacco has said, any ‘new’ or ‘discovered’ right “will need to be imagined, believed in, and fought for before it can become law.”
*It could be wedged under discrimination provisions under CEDAW or the ICCPR. However, making this a fully-fledged, explicit human right, has not been done.