Addressing Street Harassment

Mr. Speaker, today I would like to address an issue in Bermuda that has become increasingly concerning to our citizens, particularly for our young girls and women. That issue is street harassment, or what is more commonly referred to as “catcalling.”

Mr. Speaker, street harassment is an age-old social complaint. In fact, I think it would be difficult to find a woman present in these Chambers today, or someone they know, who has not been on the receiving end of street harassment at some point in her life. Because street harassment typically causes no physical harm, it tends to be ignored as another one of society’s annoyances.

Mr. Speaker, Honourable Members will no doubt agree that street harassment is not harmless. It can be an uncomfortable, frightening and even traumatic experience, particularly for young women. However traumatizing it may be, it is seldom officially reported to the appropriate authorities. The Bermuda Police Service reports that although they are aware of incidences of street harassment, there has never been a service call to them related to street harassment.

Mr. Speaker, today I would like to suggest that our collective community’s indifference to street harassment over the years has made it unlikely that victims of street harassment will seek the help of the police. The lack of reporting is not an indication of the seriousness of this matter but rather, it reflects the public’s perception that these incidents cannot be addressed through the judicial system. Many people rationalize that street harassment and catcalling is ‘not as serious’ as crimes such as sexual assault, so they do not bother with making a report. This is neither acceptable nor sustainable in a decent society.

Mr. Speaker, Honourable Members will recall that the 2023 Speech from the Throne highlighted a series of high-quality presentations produced through the Family Center’s Youth Leadership Academy summer programme aimed at improving our community. One of these presentations was an account from the perspective of three teenage girls on street harassment, its adverse and nerve-wracking impact on their lives, and what can be done to address the issue.

Mr. Speaker, in the coming year, the Ministry of National Security will partner with the Family Center’s Youth Leadership Academy and the authors of this presentation to advance initiatives to address street harassment in Bermuda. Also, the Ministry will commence a legislative review to determine if existing laws can be amended to better address this vexatious issue and to strengthen the broader message that street harassment is unacceptable in Bermuda.

Mr. Speaker, the Ministry’s legislative review will include examining legislation in other jurisdictions, as it is commonly known that street harassment has been an issue across the globe. It is noteworthy that in the past 10 years, countries including France, Belgium and Argentina have introduced legislation aimed at deterring street harassment. In December 2022, a Private Members Bill was introduced in the United Kingdom House of Commons with broad support of the Government. The new legislation criminalises acts including catcalling and making offensive gestures; walking too closely behind someone at night; blocking someone’s path; and driving slowly next to pedestrians. The Rt Hon Greg Clark, the sponsor of the Bill, said the Bill seeks to “reinforce a change in the culture that establishes that it is completely unacceptable to abuse women in the streets.”

Mr. Speaker, the Government and the Ministry of National Security agree with this sentiment. If our legislative review identifies areas for strengthening the provisions for offences against street harassment, we shall robustly pursue the necessary amendments. In this same vein Mr. Speaker, the Ministry of National Security will also spearhead a publicity campaign that will raise awareness of legislation and encourage those that have been the victim of street harassment to report the incident to the police. Our Police officers are well suited to receive these complaints and to ensure that victims are supported throughout the process.

Mr. Speaker, I encourage members of the public to discuss this issue within their social circles and reinforce the message that street harassment is not tolerable or acceptable. Together, we must change the culture of catcalling so that our young ladies and women can feel comfortable going about their daily lives without having to be subjected to verbal harassment.

Mr. Speaker, The Ministry of National Security is committed to addressing and eliminating street harassment in order to maintain dignity and decency in our community and by extension, make Bermuda safer.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.