3-15-2012By Alison Searle
Human Rights Defenders
When Rebecca Chiao moved to Egypt to work with the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, she was surprised to find that she would be working for her own rights as well.
Rebecca, an American who has lived in Cairo since 2004, encountered the everyday menace of street harassment. She learned that the problem was endemic and had gradually become accepted. Victims are blamed for their harassment, and bystanders are reluctant to prevent or stop it.
A survey taken by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) in 2008 found that 83% of Egyptian women and 93% of foreign visiting women experienced harassment. Harassment ranges from cat calls to groping to sexual assault, and can happen to women anywhere and at any time, during a walk to work or a quick trip to the grocery store.
Rebecca decided to take action. In December 2010, just before the Egyptian uprising, she launched HarassMap, an initiative that uses social media to draw attention to street harassment and coordinate outreach activities in the streets to encourage bystanders to protect victims. HarassMap is an online tool that allows women to anonymously report harassment via text message so that incidents are publicly reported, but the victims do not feel at risk. The site pinpoints “hot spots,” areas where harassment is most prevalent.
The majority of HarassMap’s work, however, lies in follow-up and outreach. Volunteers make calls to local shopkeepers, police and neighbors to explain why and how they can make their communities safe for women. The site also provides counseling on how to file a police report, services for psychological support and self-defense courses. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Chiao explained: “We’re working one neighborhood at a time. We don’t expect to change things overnight, but we’ve had a lot of support and attention even in cities outside Cairo.”
As HarassMap becomes more visible in the wake of regional uprisings, the word is spreading to neighboring countries, and more women are banding together to combat harassment. As we celebrate Women’s Month this March, we celebrate leaders like Rebecca Chiao, who are working on making the world a safer place for women.
To learn more about the effort to end street harassment, you can attend the event “From Cairo to DC: A Discussion on Street Harassment” on March 19, 6:30-8:00 p.m., as a part of International Anti-Street Harassment Week, co-sponsored by Human Rights First.