Cheer Up Love founder Eliza Hatch on fighting the normalisation of street harassment

Image via Cheer Up Love website

Photographer Eliza Hatch’s project Cheer Up Love – an ongoing photojournalism series that retells women’s’ accounts of sexual harassment in public spaces – is poignant and empowering.

She started the project in January 2017 and at the time of writing the number of followers on her Instagram page is a little over 17,000 with thousands of comments, some supportive, some abusive and some of total disbelief.

Eliza’s photographs show women standing in those same locations where they were abused, so that their stories are put into context.

She said the idea for the photo-series was most prominently sparked by a man walking past her on the street and telling her to smile and cheer up. She added: “I’ve heard this statement so many times before and I never really thought it affected me. I always brushed it off but it was in that moment that I suddenly felt a huge ray of emotions – ‘Why do I have to accept this? Why are you telling me to smile?’. A woman would never say that to a man in the same context.”

Eliza’s initial idea was to try and contextualise this issue for men and to show them that these stories are valid, but another narrative of the series quickly became clear once she began speaking to women who weren’t her friends. “This wasn’t just about proving men that this was happening, it was about giving women a voice, and I hadn’t even thought of that when I started photographing them. It didn’t even cross my mind that it actually benefited women as well.” – she said.

A survey carried out in 2016 by the End Violence Against Women coalition shows that 85% of women, aged 18–24, and 64% of women of all ages reported that they had experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places. A further of 35% have experienced unwanted sexual touching.

The Women and Equalities Committee released a report in October 2018 that focused on sexual harassment of women and girls on public transport, in bars and clubs, in online spaces and at university, in parks and on the street.

Maria Miller, MP for Basingstoke and Chair of the committee, said: “Sexual harassment in public places is a regular experience for many women and girls. It is the most common form of violence and the damage is far-reaching. And yet most of it goes unreported.”

The government has pledged to tackle and eliminate sexual harassment of women and girls by 2030, but the committee said there is “no evidence of any programme to achieve this”.

Starting from September 2020, primary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education and secondary schools will be required to teach Relationships and Sex Education, but apart from that, the government has not made any further efforts to tackle the issue.

The committee concludes the damage is far-reaching. Experienced at a young age, sexual harassment becomes ‘normalised’: it shapes the messages children receive about what is acceptable behaviour between men and women, and teaches girls to diminish their experiences of abuse.

Cheer Up Love founder, Eliza, remembers questioning a friend if she has been abused in the past, but she denied ever experiencing it. “When I asked her if she has even been wolf-whistled at or ever being made to feel uncomfortable on public transport, bar or a club, my friend instantly responded ‘All the time but that’s normal’.”

Eliza added: “We have been conditioned for so long to just expect baseline level of harassment and to be treated as a sexual object in public. When guys pinged our bra straps at school or slapped our asses or put their hands up our skirts or had sex with us without our consent, because it wasn’t the stereotypical case of getting dragged in a dark alley by a stranger, it wasn’t construed as harassment.”

Despite the proven effects sexual harassment has on both women and men, the government has not made moves to criminalise it. Legislators in France introduced fines for catcalling in September 2018 and by April this year, more than 450 men have been prosecuted.

In the UK, however, one can be fined for throwing a cigarette on the street, for parking in the wrong place and for public disturbance. But violence and harassment towards women in a public space and catcalling are still legal, with no repercussions whatsoever.

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