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December 19, 2014

New Data Documents Rampant Sexual Harassment in Egypt’s Public Space

By Carolyn Greco

Ninety-five percent of women surveyed have been subjected to sexual harassment in Cairo, according to a new study released by HarassMap, a project that aims to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt.

Mass demonstrations in Egypt throughout 2011 brought the nation’s sexual harassment problem into the spotlight as mob assaults on women prevented their political participation in public space. Much of the local media coverage blamed survivors, sending the message that women should not be in the public sphere.

HarassMap’s study examined the effectiveness of crowdsourcing as a tool for tracking sexual harassment in public spaces. Despite its limitations, crowdsourcing allows for collecting data on sensitive issues because people can report incidents anonymously.  

The study found that online reporting methods contribute to a “disinhibition effect” and have the potential to make respondents more willing to discuss sensitive issues and painful experiences. Whereas incidents of sexual assault and rape were less likely to be conveyed in face-to-face interviews or group discussions, HarassMap received a large number of reports of assault and rape, suggesting that anonymity may encourage reports of the most severe forms of sexual harassment.

The statistics of the report are striking: 95.3% of female respondents said they experienced sexual harassment, ranging from catcalling (86.7%) to ogling (83.7%) to touching (56.3%). The most common places women were harassed were on the streets and public transportation.

As for male respondents, 77.3% admitted to having committed sexual harassment, 32.4% who had witnessed cases of harassment did not intervene because they did not recognize harassment as a problem, and 37.1% of male respondents maintained that women wanted to be harassed.

When women described incidents of sexual harassment they spoke about feelings of fear, guilt, irritation, disgust, and frustration whereas men described their exposure to sexual harassment as amusing, entertaining, funny, flattering, and trivial. Data collected supported the view that sexual harassment is normalized in Egypt by an underlying sexist, patriarchal social and cultural environment. 

The study cited under-reporting as one of the main reasons for social acceptance of sexual harassment in Egypt. Both male and female participants stated they rarely report cases of sexual harassment; 78% of all respondents stated that fear of scandal is the main reason for not reporting.

The study offered the following recommendations to curb sexual harassment:

  • Enact a new sexual harassment law and simplify the process of filing reports against harassers;
  • Promote police stations as places that provide services for all Egyptian citizens;
  • Promote positive images of women that highlight the importance of their participation in public space;
  • Foster collaboration between state institutions and NGOs or initiatives working on sexual harassment;
  • Educate government officials, media personnel, and members of the public about the extent of sexual harassment in Egypt;
  • Establish community programs that encourage men and women to speak out against sexual harassment and to intervene on behalf of the harassed;
  • Advance social media platforms targeted at younger populations to encourage debate about sexual harassment and about the constructed images of women and their role in society; and
  • Generate more online platforms for males and females to discuss their experiences and perceptions about sexual harassment.

In addition to legal and police reforms, community mobilization efforts are needed to challenge social acceptance of sexual harassment. The work of independent initiatives and NGOs in Egypt dedicated to women and gender issues is critical to breaking the silence and eliminating the stigma associated with sexual violence.

Last week, Human Rights First awarded Kholoud Saber Barakat with the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award at its 2014 Human Rights Summit in recognition of her courageous work advocating for the rights of women. Part of her work is with Nazra, an Egyptian NGO that provides counseling to survivors of sexual violence.

“The increase in violent attacks, sexual assaults, and mob rape in public squares has made the struggle for space in the public sphere increasingly challenging for Egyptian women,” she said. “While my colleagues and I have been unable to put an end to the plague of sexual violence in Egypt, our efforts have brought these horrific crimes to the agendas of both the government and civil society. Winning this award means that our efforts are working, and gives me hope that one day we can create a public space in Egypt that is safe for all."

In 2010, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women denounced Egypt’s inadequate legislative provisions, lack of data, and inadequate support services for survivors of sexual violence and urged the Egyptian government to “give priority attention to combating violence against women and girls and to adopting comprehensive measures to address such violence.”  And yet there were 500 documented cases of sexual violence between the February 2011 uprising and January 2014. 

HarassMap’s study serves as a useful resource to increase reporting and foster broader discussions of sexual harassment. But the work of Nazra and other civil society organizations is at risk as the government threatens to close human rights advocacy groups, putting the already small number of services available to survivors in jeopardy.