Women's fears about street harassment have surged during the pandemic, with a study revealing almost three quarters of women are scared of exercising outside in the dark and another report finding parents are highly anxious about their daughters’ safety.
A poll of 2,110 adults, carried out by Nuffield Health and YouGov, found half of British women are doing less exercise as it gets darker in the mornings and evenings during the winter lockdown.
Researchers at the UK’s largest healthcare charity found rules to curb the spread of coronavirus — which forced gyms across the country to close as the clocks went back — are damaging the mental and physical health of Britons.
The study found the lockdown has had a detrimental impact on the mental health of six in 10 women polled, with the proportion rising to almost seven in 10 for women who are aged between 25 to 34.
A third of all those polled said they had done less exercise than usual during the Covid lockdowns as campaigners warned ongoing gym closures could worsen the “mental and physical health crisis” during the winter months.
The report comes just before a debate in parliament on gym closures on Monday — with researchers noting the findings are especially concerning in the context of the NHS deeming obesity to be a risk factor to having serious complications from coronavirus.
While there have been 45 million visits since gyms opened back up again in July, researchers noted there had only been 0.99 cases of coronavirus in gyms per 100,000 visits.
Dr Davina Deniszczyc, medical director of Nuffield Health, said gyms deliver a “safe indoor place” for people of a range of ages to “exercise, improve their health and take the burden off our NHS”.
She added: “The opportunities to exercise, which would have a beneficial impact are reduced during this lockdown, compared to in the spring. As we head into the winter months and days get even shorter, people are finding it hard to find time to exercise outside.
“This will have a huge impact on everyone, but particularly disadvantages women, who most report feeling unsafe exercising outside, with fear of harassment likely playing a big part in this. It’s clear that this is a further example of a health inequality being caused by the lockdown.
“There has been no evidence found that gyms pose an increased risk to transmitting Covid. Gyms must be prioritised as a sector to reopen following the lockdown and left out of future tiered restrictions. Not doing so presents a significant risk to people’s mental and physical health this winter and will lead to greater problems for the NHS in the long term.”
Her comments come as a study by Plan International found parents start getting anxious about their daughters being subjected to street harassment when they are just 11-years-old.
The report, which polled more than 1,000 parents of girls who are aged between 14 and 21 and just over a 1,000 girls of the same age group, found young girls' freedom is being infringed due to parent's fears of street harassment.
While four in 10 parents urge their daughters not to go out after dark due to such anxiety, seven in 10 tell their daughters not to walk home alone after a certain time and half urge them not to go to certain places.
Researchers, who carried out the report with grassroots organisation Our Streets Now, found 80 per cent of parents said they worry their daughter will endure public sexual harassment in their lifetime.
Half of young women and girls were found to have suffered street harassment during the summer, while one in five in the first national lockdown.
Lucy*, a 14-year-old girl from Cornwall who was harassed while walking to school, said: “I was walking by a road and a group of men shouted and made inappropriate sexual gestures to me out of the back of a bus.
“I was wearing my school uniform and was visibly underage. A few minutes later another man drove past and shouted something out of the window. I didn’t report the incident to the police because I don’t really know how to, and even if I did, I wasn’t confident that they would take me seriously, or be able to do anything about it.
“Public sexual harassment needs to be made illegal. No-one deserves to feel unsafe walking home from school in their uniform — it’s disgusting. Having a clear law and ways of reporting will change so many women and girls’ lives and perhaps we’ll be able to walk down the street without feeling threatened, scared and objectified.”
Her mother said learning what had happened to both her own daughter and other young girls makes her very angry.
She added: “I remember getting harassed when I was younger, to the point where I didn’t walk down alleyways, I changed my clothes to feel safe in certain situations, and I wouldn’t walk on my own after dark.
"To know that thirty years later my daughter is facing the same issues is awful. People think catcalling is not going to cause any harm, but it is incessant, and the build-up of that can cause long-term harm.”
A study by the charity which came out in April found young women say sexual harassment, including men indecently exposing themselves, has become worse during the lockdown.
Plan International, who polled more than 1,000 women aged between 14 and 21, found one in five women have suffered harassment on the streets since the government implemented social distancing measures — with a fifth of them saying the issue of harassment has got worse during lockdown.
*Lucy’s name has been changed to protect her identity