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Sexual harassment: Scotland gets new legal service


Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, new specialist legal service, sexual harassment, Rosa, the TUC, the Everyday Sexism Project,“Helping to build a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated.”

The Scottish Women’s Rights Centre (SWRC) has just launched a new specialist legal service to provide legal information, advice and representation to women who have experienced sexual harassment at work, in further education or online.

Sexual harassment is broadly defined as ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature’, and is predominantly experienced by women and perpetrated by men, which is why it is considered it to be a form of gender-based violence.

Some examples of sexual harassment include: making unwelcome verbal or physical advances; wolf-whistling or catcalling at you in the street; unwelcome touching in a sexual way; making offensive and/or sexually explicit comments; making sexually embarrassing ‘jokes’; and sending inappropriate texts and emails to or about you.

In 2016, the Trade Unions Congress (TUC), in partnership with the Everyday Sexism Project, interviewed 1,533 women about their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace.

More than half (52 per cent) of them said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, including: being subject to sexual comments about their bodies and clothes, unwanted touching – such as a hand on the knee or lower back – unwanted sexual advances, and unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them.

Some of the effects this had on women were that they felt embarrassed, it negatively affected their mental health, and they tried to avoid meetings or work situations, left their job, or wanted to leave but were not able to do so because of financial reasons.

In January 2019 the sexual health and wellbeing charity Brook asked 5,649 students about sexual violence and harassment in universities. 66 per cent of them were female and reported being touched inappropriately, being wolf-whistled at, receiving explicit messages, or being exposed to sexual conversation.

Despite this, only 15 per cent of all the students interviewed (female and male) believed that they had experienced sexual violence or harassment. This highlights what we know, that sexual harassment has been normalised by society.

Online spaces have increasingly become a place where women constantly face the threat of sexual harassment.

In 2017, Amnesty international surveyed the experiences of 4,000 women aged between 18 and 55 years on social media across countries in Europe and America. They found that 1 in 5 had experienced abuse and harassment online.

With regard to what legal action someone being subjected to sexual harassment, because each case of is different the legal steps you can take will depend on the specific circumstances.

However, some initial options are:

Reporting the behaviour to the police. For example, it could be a sexual offence, threatening or abusive behaviour, stalking, or domestic abuse if the person harassing you is a partner or ex-partner. You can find information about reporting to the police in the legal guides here.

You may be able to seek a Non-Harassment Order or other protective orders against the person who is sexually harassing you. Read the SWRC’s guide on Stopping Harassment here.

Sexual harassment at work: you can report the harassment to your employer, raise a grievance if it is not adequately dealt with, and you might be able to raise a claim of sexual harassment, unfair or constructive dismissal, or another type of claim against your employer in an Employment Tribunal.

Sexual harassment in further education: the law is more complicated in this context, but you may be able to take legal action against your education institution, but this will depend on whether the institution can be held responsible for the sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment online: imaged based sexual abuse is a common form of sexual harassment online and it is a crime. There are many other ways in which people can experience sexual harassment online.

The SWRC’s sexual harassment legal service will focus on raising awareness and increasing the availability of specialist legal support through a weekly legal helpline, legal surgeries and legal representation.

It will also develop information resources, training and policy work to challenge sexual harassment in Scotland.

The service will be run by Sarah Mennie, an employment lawyer with expertise in discrimination law and human rights.

It has been made possible by funding from the Justice and Equality Fund, which is administered by Rosa, a fund set up to support initiatives that benefit women and girls in the UK.

The Justice and Equality Fund was set up in February 2018 by a group of women in the entertainment industry in response to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in collaboration with women’s organisations and activists in the UK.

Sandy Brindley, CEO of Rape Crisis Scotland, said: “No-one should have to put up with inappropriate behaviour; it’s just not okay.

“We all have a right to feel safe in public, at home, in work and going about our daily lives, but for that to happen there needs to be much more accountability than there is at the moment.

“Having a solicitor focused specifically on sexual harassment at the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre is a massive step forward in helping to build a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated, one where women can live their lives free from fear and harassment.”

For legal information about a case of sexual harassment, you can call the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre’s helpline: 08088 010 789; it is open every Thursday from 5pm to 8pm.

In an emergency, or if you feel threatened, call 999 and ask for the police.

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