22 May 2018: Street harassment linked to mental illness in young women: report

A new report from global girls’ rights group Plan International Australia has found a concerning link between multiple experiences of street harassment and poor mental health among young women. 

The Sexism in the City report, released today, is a survey of 500 women aged 18 to 25 in Sydney. It revealed one in three young women who have been harassed more than once a month self-report anxiety or depression as a direct result.

The most common forms of street harassment reported were: cat-calling (83%), menacing behaviour (55%), being told to smile (44%), having their path blocked (30%), being touched inappropriately (30%), physical violence/sexual assault (10%). 

In almost all cases, the perpetrators were men (95%). One in three young women said they were first harassed between the ages of 11 and 15.

Plan International Australia’s CEO Susanne Legena said street harassment is a common and often silently endured experience, because reporting mechanisms are not good enough. 

“What this report tells us, loud and clear, is that cat-calling and menacing behavior is not ‘harmless fun’ or ‘a compliment’. It has real and lasting repercussions. It’s affecting the well-being of our young women and in many cases, they are simply opting out of using public spaces. 

“Plan International is a global organisation that works to make cities safer for young women and girls around the world. The disturbing picture emerging from our current research on street harassment is that it is very common, it can be very serious, and perhaps most concerning, it begins before a girl even reaches puberty.

“We know that Sydney is a fantastic city and one of the safest in the world, but even so, it could be improved by acknowledging street harassment is a problem that really needs to be addressed.”

When asked what they did in response to the most serious incident they had experienced, only 1 in 13 (7%) young women reported it to authorities. Reporting to family and friends was much more common (60%), whilst almost a third (30%) did nothing. 

“The responsibility to improve rates of reporting should not lie with victims, but rather with authorities,” Ms Legena said. “The vast majority of young women we surveyed (85%) feel that reporting systems for street harassment are simply not good enough. 

“We want to see those with a stake in city safety, whether it is councils, city planners, police or transit authorities, step up and take this issue seriously. We need a concerted effort to tackle this problem, which stems from deep seated inequality that still exists in all societies.

“Bystanders need to do better, too. Overwhelmingly, 9 out of 10 young women say men in particular have an important role to intervene if they see street harassment occurring. Like any form of sexism, a culture shift is required so that this behaviour is never encouraged and that it’s not seen as normal or acceptable.”

Sydney is one of five locations worldwide where Plan International is currently using digital mapping technology via it’s Free to Be project to collect data on the real experiences of thousands of girls and young women when they navigate their cities. Plan International’s city safety maps are now live in Delhi, Kampala, Lima, Sydney and Madrid. 

The Free to Be city mapping project is a partnership between Plan International Australia, CrowdSpot and Monash University’s XYX Lab

“This is a very ambitious crowdsourcing project that is collecting real stories from real girls and women about how they experience cities,” Ms Legena said. “It’s not about labelling cities as ‘dangerous’. It’s about helping authorities and planners to reimagine public spaces so that everyone can enjoy city life equally.”

Director of the XYX Lab Dr Nicole Kalms added: “The Free to Be project is illuminating the complexity of women’s experiences of sexual harassment in urban space. We are not only seeing how women's access to public life is challenged by sexual harassing behaviour, but how sexual harassment shapes young women’s mental health and their identity.”

The Sydney map, which can be accessed here, has so far attracted 2500 entries with one week left to go before it closes. 

So far, the ‘sad’ spots that have emerged include: Kings Cross, George Street (around Town Hall), Pyrmont Bridge, King Street and Wentworth Park. Public transport is emerging as problematic, with clusters of ‘bad pins’ around Central bus station, Central Station, St Peter’s Station, Blacktown Station and Parramatta Stations. 

The ‘happy’ spaces where young women in Sydney feel welcome and safe include: Circular Quay (particularly on the ferries), Central Park, UNSW and Macquarie University campuses, McIvor Baths Coogee and Oxford Street. 

Key findings from Plan International Australia’s Sexism in the City report: 

  • One in four young women in Sydney experience street harassment at least once a month.
  • More than one-third of respondents were first harassed between the ages of 11 and 15.
  • One in three girls who have been harassed once a month or more report experiencing anxiety, depression or ongoing mental health issues as a direct result.
  • Those who have been harassed on a regular basis (once a month or more) are twice as likely to report experiencing anxiety, depression or ongoing mental health issues as a result.
  • Girls who first experienced street harassment at a younger age (15 or under) were more likely to report ongoing impacts on their behaviour and wellbeing.
  • Around three in four young women were harassed in front of bystanders, yet just 16% say someone stepped in to help them. Just one in 10 young women in Sydney say they always feel safe to go out at night. One in six say they always feel unsafe in the city after dark. 
  • The most common forms of street harassment experienced by young women are: cat-calling (83%), menacing behaviour (55%), being told to smile (44%), having their path blocked (30%), being touched inappropriately (30%), physical violence/sexual assault (10%). 

Plan Internationals’ Sydney city safety map will remain open for entries until May 28. The data will be collected and analysed by researchers from Monash University’s XYX Lab, which will provide insight into the best and worst areas of the city, what makes a city safe or dangerous for girls. It will be provided to the relevant councils, transport authorities, urban planners and others with a stake in city safety to promote positive changes for more inclusive cities. Girls and young women in Sydney are encouraged to take part in this groundbreaking research project by visiting http://sydney.planfreetobe.org/