New research reveals 80% of girls don't feel safe outside

16 June 2021

  • Half (51%) of all girls 13 to 18 received unwanted sexual comments directed at them in public, with 33% aged 13 and 14
  • Three in ten (29%) girls and young women revealed they first experienced sexual harassment when they were just 11 to 13 years old
  • Fear of sexual harassment is having a significant impact on girls’ and young women’s lives limiting their freedoms, opportunities and negatively impacting their wellbeing.
  • The likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment increases with age and is more prevalent for girls of colour and girls identifying as LGBQ.

New research published by Girlguiding, the UK’s leading charity for girls and young women, highlights the shocking scale of sexual harassment experienced by girls and young women both in public and at school, and the impact fear of harassment is having on their lives.

The research comes only a week after Ofsted’s damning report into the high levels of sexual harassment of young people in school, with girls particularly affected. The poll of over 420 girls and young women aged 13 to 18 found the vast majority (80%) don’t feel safe when they go outside on their own. Many are regularly confronted with unwanted attention, including whistling and sexual comments when they do.

Three in ten (29%) girls and young women revealed they first experienced sexual harassment when they were just 11 to 13 years old, with 5% saying they were younger than ten-years-old.

Experiences of sexual harassment that girls and young women aged 13-18 reported in public include:

  • 60% experienced unwanted attention, such as whistling, 19% of all girls said it happens often or most of the time. Girls of colour were more likely to experience unwanted attention (67% compared to 57%) and to experience it more often. LGBQ girls were also more likely to have experienced unwanted attention and more often (72% compared to 57%).    
  • 16% experienced unwanted touching on public transport, rising to 30% of those aged 17 and 18.  
  • Half (51%)  received unwanted sexual comments directed at them in public (33% of those aged 13 and 14.)
  • Over half (54%) reported feeling uncomfortable or intimidated when out.
  • Six in ten (60%) have experienced intimidation by a group of boys, raising from 46% aged 13 and 14, to 78% for those aged 17 and 18 (50% of whom say this happens often or most of the time). Girls of colour were more likely to experience this most of the time (18% compared to 8% of white girls) and LGBT+ girls were more likely to have experienced intimidation (78% compared to 57% of straight girls).

The fear of sexual harassment is having a negative impact on girls’ and young women’s lives (aged 13 to 18), limiting their freedoms, opportunities and negatively impacting their wellbeing, with the research revealing:

  • Half (50%) avoid going out when it’s dark. This is higher for girls of colour (68%) compared to White girls (46%), and LGBQ girls (63% compared to 47%).
  • 40% avoid going out on their own all together.
  • Two in five (38%) said they feel anxious, worried and scared (increasing to 65% for young women aged 17-18).
  • A third (34%) say it stops them from feeling free to go to the places they want, or they take less convenient routes to feel safer, rising to 53% aged 17-18. This was significantly higher for girls of colour — 50% compared to 30%.
  • A quarter (25%) say it stops them from wearing what they want or means they change their outfits to try and avoid harassment.
  • One in ten girls (11%) believes fear of sexual harassment negatively affects their education, including how much they can concentrate or participate in class.

Angela Salt OBE, Girlguiding CEO said: “The scale of sexual harassment that girls and young women experience as shown in Girlguiding’s research is appalling. This needs to change. Girls and young women have a right to feel and be safe at all times of the day and night.

“Girlguiding is calling for the culture of harassment to be recognised and tackled wherever it occurs. The burden mustn’t fall on girls and young women to have to change this on their own.”

In school, Girlguiding’s research found an alarming 67% of girls aged 13-18 have experienced sexual harassment from other students. This includes:

  • Taunts and ‘jokes’ of a sexual nature (48%)
  • Sexist or derogatory comments on social media (41%). Girls identifying as LGBT+ are more likely to experience this (62% compared to 37% of girls that identify as heterosexual)
  • Seeing rude or obscene graffiti about girls or women (33%)
  • Unwanted attention or stalking (27%). Girls of colour are more likely to experience this than their white peers (39% compared to 24% of their White peers).
  • Seeing pictures or videos of girls or women that made them feel uncomfortable (26%)
  • Seeing sexually explicit pictures or videos e.g. been shown pornography (24%)
  • Been asked to share an intimate photograph (23%)
  • Unwanted touching e.g. being pinned down, skirt being pulled, bra strap pulled (18%). Significantly more LGBQ girls (32% compared to 15% of heterosexual girls.

Girlguiding Advocate Henrietta, 16, said: “School should be a safe space where I and other girls can thrive. Yet I think I speak for all girls when I say that I’m fed up - of the culture and dismissal of our experiences, and of the relentless barrage of abuse and harassment we endure both at school and in public. Not a day goes by when I don’t hear boys making sexual jokes or hear of friend’s experiences of sexual harassment.

“Attitudes and culture must change if we are to get to the root of the problem and stop damaging girls’ wellbeing, confidence and self-esteem. Education and a change in the portrayal of women in the media are key, as is criminalising street harassment.”

The research revealed girls and young women want schools and the government to take sexual harassment more seriously, with 65% wanting a zero-tolerance approach in schools, and 63% wanting better education for everyone about consent and acceptable behaviours. Over half (55%) of girls said they want public sexual harassment to be made a crime.  

Two in five (41%) girls aged 13 to 16 and 66% aged 17 and 18 also want to see an improvement to how women are portrayed in the media such as not being so sexualised or objectified.   

The research also shows that 57% of all girls and young women believe that reporting sexual harassment should be made easier. Only 35% said they’d know who to talk to if they experienced sexual harassment, and just 27% said they’d feel confident to report it.  

Despite the scale of sexual harassment experienced by girls, only 7% aged 13 and 14, 11% aged 15 and 16, and 22% aged 17 and 18 had ever reported it to their school or the police. Of those that had reported sexual harassment, 37% felt happy about the action that was taken, whilst 56% felt unhappy.   

In 2015 Girlguiding campaigned to see sexual harassment in schools addressed, helping to show the extent of the issue and calling for new guidance. Six years later the charity is calling for the Government to do more to tackle the culture of sexual harassment across society  to ensure that girls and young women are free to enjoy and benefit from school and public space. 

In Girlguiding, girls and young women have the opportunity to explore important issues such as empowerment, safety and harassment through the charity’s programme of topics and activities. Along with a range of interest badges for all sections in guiding, skills builder topics such as ‘Make change and Influence’, ‘Better together’ and ‘Personal safety’ provide activities for girls to learn new skills whilst building their resilience and confidence.

In 2018, 76,000 girls and young women in Girlguiding said safety was a priority issue they wanted to see action on. As a result, Respect Makers, as part of Future Girl, the charity’s girl-led plan for change was formed, so that girls and young women grow up feeling safe and supported.