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The Council of Europe’s recent convention on violence against women decided to further criminalize abhorrent practices such as genital mutilation and forced marriage. Within the news laws, the council also decided to include a clause against harassment. The Telegraph reports Europe (including Britain) will “impose sanctions for ‘unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.’”
Opinion writer Jenny McCartney seems to oppose the loose definition of harassment in the clause; she notes the many conflicting interpretations that have already emerged since the convention to support her argument. In one instance, the Scotland attorney general said that the law would not criminalize wolf-whistling and teasing. Yet Julia Gray of Hollaback was reported saying, “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.” McCartney’s concerns raise the issue of subjectivity towards harassment amongst different types of people and cultures. In her perspective, something that can be interpreted in multiple ways has to be as objectively defined as possible in order for the law to be fair to everyone.
On the other hand, the council’s definition includes every kind of harassment (verbal, non-verbal, and physical) that should not be left unpunished. It may not be strictly worded and obvious, but it still allows victims to right the injustices they have endured. The harassment clause is an important step towards ending street harassment, but perhaps we need to determine its success based on how the courts will be able to use the clause to judge future sexual harassment cases and consequences.
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