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What is it like for a woman who is harassed?

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Media caption'I've been harassed on the street, on buses and in bars'

What would you do if someone shouted lewd remarks or even exposed themselves to you as you walked down the street?

It's what many women have to endure and MPs are calling for the government to take action to clampdown on street harassment.

Some people can't imagine this sort of thing happening to them, but others have come forward revealing their experience of feeling vulnerable in public for many years.

Flashed at age 10

Ruth from Kent is now in her 60s and recalls a litany of harassment since childhood.

"These days I'm not noticed by anyone, but when I was a child there was always unwanted attention from men. Aged 10, a man exposed his penis to me in public.

"Aged 11, a man selling ice cream from a van reached over the counter and touched my chest. I didn't report it, and even felt like it was partly my fault."

Just two years later another man exposed himself to her in a park and grabbed her dog. Again, she didn't tell anyone but it's still on her mind.

"Those things don't ever leave you" she said.

Ruth used to commute when she was a teenager and remembers men rubbing against her.

"If a carriage was full, men would press up against me and if it was empty there was the potential of being harassed if you were on your own.

"Women don't think about rubbing their bodies against men! It's a society thing, like we're a lesser sex."

Help and advice

Image copyright PA
Image caption The daily commute can make some women uncomfortable

Bottom pinched at age 12

Sarah in Canterbury is now 77 years old and recalls her shock at having her bottom touched on holiday in Italy.

"It was expected and accepted that when you went abroad you were subjected to bottom pinching."

But, at home, she clearly remembers "the feeling of discomfort and tension as we ran the gauntlet of catcalls and shouts, especially past building sites."

When she complained about not being able to walk down the street comfortably in a relaxed way, she was told that it was harmless.

"Nobody was going to attack you. But it was incredibly unpleasant."

The harassment stopped, she says, only when she had a baby.

Image copyright Getty Images

Stalked aged 22

Aggie lives in Bristol and was stalked by two different men in just six months. She reported the first instance, but was not satisfied with the response.

"I was told to try to avoid my usual route to/from work but I still feel really vulnerable."

During the second incident, she was aware of being stared at while on the bus to work, and instinctively knew the man was going to follow her when she got off.

"He pretended to go a different way to me and I made a beeline for the nearest shop, hoping to lose him, but he saw me and followed me. I went into a shop and told the staff I was being followed."

The staff member walked her to work.

She didn't report it as she felt she'd only be told to change her route again: "What can I do to defend myself when the police won't defend me? Society is telling me to be more vigilant and to change routes so that I am not so much of an easy target.

"Men that harass women have no repercussions."

Aggie will soon be using her bike, despite it taking her much longer to get to work.

She wants people to realise how common this type of behaviour is.

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Kerb-crawled at 30

Gemma from Amesbury in Wiltshire describes feeling threatened by young men who followed her while she was out running.

"It was a route I've run so many times and in broad daylight. Plenty of people were around. A van came up beside me and stopped in the lay-by. I thought the men were stopping for directions, but when I approached them, they were just staring at me.

"They were kerb-crawling me. I swore at them. I should be able to go wherever I want to go!"

Image copyright Gemma
Image caption Gemma: "I should be able to go wherever I want to go without being harassed"

After feeling shaken up and angry, Gemma says she is much more wary of people now.

"It makes you think twice about stopping for anyone, even if it could be an innocent query."

Tanya in Malta says she is self-conscious when she goes for a run: "I know I will be beeped, shouted at, whistled at, stared at, even if I am wearing baggy clothes.

"Creepy older men say sexually aggressive things to me as I pass them.

"I hate the way men can do whatever they please, but I am made to feel that the responsibility of their actions is mine."

Grabbed at 75

Despite being, in her words, "invisible", Sarah in Canterbury was harassed in her 70s.

"Someone laid hands on me. He was drunk or on drugs.

"Luckily a crowd of young people waiting outside a bar came over and pulled him off.

"I didn't call the police. I didn't think about it at the time."

A father's perspective

When Ibi's 14-year-old daughter started her work experience at Canary Wharf in London, it was only a matter of days before she mentioned unwanted attention.

"She called my wife complaining of adult men in their 30s who kept wolf whistling and making comments to her as she left the station," he says. "She was upset and confused by it.

"It makes me really ashamed as a man, we are honestly powerless to do anything with men who demonstrate such disgusting behaviour and feel it's acceptable."


What to do if you are harassed

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Hollaback! - an international movement tackling harassment - says there is no right or wrong way to respond.

It says the most important thing is to get yourself out of the situation if you feel unsafe.

But if you choose to speak directly to the assailant, it offers the following advice:

  1. Be firm: Look them in the eye and denounce their behaviour with a strong, clear voice
  2. Say what feels natural: The important thing is that you are not apologetic in your response
  3. Don't engage: Harassers may try to argue with you or dismiss you through further conversation or by making fun of you. As tempting as it may be get into a verbal war with them, it is not recommended. The attention may feed their abusive behaviour
  4. Keep moving: Once you've said your piece, keep moving. Harassers do not deserve the pleasure of your company

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