Legislation Protecting Women in the UK
Trigger warning: this Cheat Sheet contains potentially upsetting content in relation to violence against women.
In this Cheat Sheet we’ll briefly break down the existing laws that are (or should be) protecting women, particularly from harassment and sexual assault. Even though there has been consistent progress in the last decade, especially during the past couple of years, data shows that a lot of work still needs to be done in order to keep these laws effective.
Whilst this Cheat Sheet will focus on statistics of crimes committed against women, it is equally important to acknowledge that anyone of any gender identity can be the victim of this type of crime.
Is sexual harassment considered a crime in the United Kingdom?
Sexual harassment is not a criminal offence for UK law, although rape and sexual assault are.
The law defines harassment as the behaviour of a person who intends to cause distress or alarm on more than one occasion. Harassment can be verbal or physical. The incidents could have happened recently, or months apart.
In UK law, a new Sexual Offences Act was made in 2003, replacing the previous one to add more specific clauses that prevent any of the above situations from happening. Among the new offences, we also find the law against non-consensual voyeurism.
In March 2019 the Government upgraded the Ending Violence against Women and Girls Strategy with a new Refresh to keep up with their mission of preventing sexual abuse against women and providing aid services for victims. The Strategy addresses a variety of sexual crimes such as domestic abuse, sexual violence, stalking, and the so-called “honour-based” violence including forced marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Except for these specific laws that prevent and punish violence against women, basic human rights laws also contribute to women’s safety, like:
the right to life. It means that the state should intervene when someone’s life is at risk from another person;
the right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way. It implies that public bodies, such as the police, have an obligation to protect at-risk individuals from violations by private citizens;
the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence; it includes the right to develop normal family life;
the right not to be discriminated against. This right prohibits discrimination on any grounds, which include disability, gender, race, political views, career status, marital status, etc.
Does the law actually work?
Short answer: not as often as it should.
Long answer: As stated in an 80-page report by the Centre for Women’s Justice, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan, and Rape Crisis England & Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) keeps failing victims or survivors of sexual violence, pointing out that rape cases are being dropped when they should not be. As a matter of fact, data shows that 55,259 rapes were reported last year, besides the 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions.
"only 0.7% of all rape cases result in the offender being found guilty"
Although reports to the police have tripled since 2012, only 20% of women who are raped report it. Only 3% of reported cases result in a police charge but only 0.7% of all rape cases result in the offender being found guilty.
Even though progress has been made, and laws emulated, it’s still not enough to solve the problem.
More information about how the justice system in England and Wales fails survivors of sexual violence can be found at The Psychologist’s article. The author breaks down the problems of dropping rape cases and the difficulty of survivors to handle such situation.
Laws in progress
Domestic Violence Bill
Status: Lords’ Committee Stage (examination of the Bill) done on 10.02.2021. Lords’ Report Stage (re-examination and opportunity to make further changes) planned on 03.03.2021.
This Bill would place a legal duty on councils to offer secure homes for victims of violence, and their children. Applying to England and Wales, it proposed the first government definition of domestic abuse, including financial abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical behaviour.
The ‘Istanbul Convention’ sets out minimum standards for how governments should prevent violence, protect women and girls experiencing it, and prosecute those responsible. The UK signed up to this Convention in 2012 but it has never been ratified or entered into force.
When the UK ratifies the Convention, it will be legally bound to follow the standards in it, therefore the government claims that it wants to ensure that all our laws are in line with the Convention before they ratify it - hence the delay.
To conclude, even though specific laws to keep women safe have been enacted, it is necessary to combine these laws with a more efficient justice system and proper assistance for victims and survivors, so that the law can be as good on reality as it is on paper.
For more resources on women's rights, head to our dedicated Feminism & Gender Issues section.