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Equality law: UK to sign convention which could outlaw wolf-whistles and sexist remarks

Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday committed the UK to the Council of Europe convention on violence against women. The convention aims to criminalise both verbal and non-verbal or physical sexual harassment. The signing event was held to mark International Women's Day.

The convention has now been signed by 18 countries, including Germany, France and the Ukraine. The convention includes pledges which commit signatories to enacting measures to criminalise or impose sanctions for "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".

Other measures outlaw 'psychological violence' which suggests that bullying could also be covered under new legislation.

The convention also makes provision for compensation for victims of domestic violence, a system which would allow forced marriages to be more easily annulled, and punishment for coercing a woman into genital mutilation, forced sterilisations or abortions.

An official statement from the Prime Minister's office read: "This agreement is not just a piece of paper. It's going to lift the standards of protection for women across Europe, give greater support for victims and, crucially, bring many more perpetrators to justice."

Former Labour attorney general Baroness Scotland worked on the convention for four years. She remarked that the terms of the convention were not designed to outlaw less serious incidents like wolf-whistling and teasing.

However, supporters of groups which campaign for the outlawing of such gestures were yesterday claiming victory. Julia Gray is the founder of the London branch of US movement 'Hollaback' which is dedicated to abolishing street harassment. She spoke out to back tough new laws.

"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," she said.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said it was too early to comment on the specific sanctions which might be imposed for various forms of sexual harassment.

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