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Will Street Harassment be Outlawed in the UK?

In News stories | on 03.08.12 | by | Comments ( 0 )

Executive Director of UN Women Michelle Bachelet at the Convention opening signing in 2011. Image via UN

Today the United Kingdom becomes the 19th country and Turkey the 20th country to sign the “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence,” which was written in April 2011. (See which countries have already signed it.)

The Convention states that gender-based violence is a “violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women and shall mean all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Countries that sign the Convention agree to pass legislation or criminalize or impose sanctions against different types of gender violence, including domestic violence, honor killings, stalking, and sexual harassment. Here’s the exact language about sexual harassment, which presumably includes street harassment since it does not say the sexual harassment must occur in workplaces or schools:

“Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, is subject to criminal or other legal sanction.”

Given this language of this article in the Convention, anti-street harassment activists in the UK are lobbying for new legislation against street harassment. Way to go!

But of course, they’re getting pushback.Via the Guardian:

“Former attorney general Baroness Scotland, who worked on the convention for four years under the Labour government, said the clause on sexual harassment was not intended to cover less serious incidents such as wolf-whistling and public teasing. However, campaigners on the issue said the convention was “what we’ve been trying to get for years”.

Julia Gray, founder of the London branch of US movement Hollaback, dedicated to getting rid of street harassment, said: “The way we see it is if you want to tackle it you tackle all of it – you say no to all forms of unwanted sexual harassment; that includes wolf-whistling, comments, everything.”

A Downing Street spokesman said it was too early to discuss possible sanctions for sexual harassment.”

With all due respect to Baroness Scotland, why isn’t the Convention supposed to include “less serious incidents”? Those are the incidents that are the most common. They are the incidents which annoy, degrade and anger us, and which allow harassers to become emboldened to escalate to more serious crimes. I agree with Julia Gray, it’s only a half-hearted attempt to address this form of gender discrimination unless it includes all forms of sexual harassment!!

Even though this is a Convention for European Countries, countries like  Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. could sign it too as they are “Non-Member States of the Council of Europe.” But considering how the U.S. still has not signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, I doubt the U.S. will sign this Convention either.

Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do to change attitudes about sexual harassment, especially “less serious forms.” So let’s keep speaking — share your street harassment stories and talk about the ways in which street harassment impacts your life.

UPDATE: Read an op-ed by Hollaback London founders Bryony Beynon and Julia Gray in the Guardian

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