Saturday, 25 September 2010
Women in Egypt get hi-tech aid to beat sexual harassment
A hi-tech weapon has been unveiled in the battle against sexual harassment in Egypt, where almost half the female population face unwanted attention from men every day.
HarassMap, a private venture that is set to launch later this year, allows women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment by sending a text message to a centralised computer. Victims will immediately receive a reply offering support and practical advice, and the reports will be used to build up a detailed and publicly available map of harassment hotspots.
The project utilises an open-source mapping technology more commonly associated with humanitarian relief operations, and the activists behind it hope to transform social attitudes to the harassment of women and shame authorities into taking greater action to combat the problem.
"In the last couple of years there's been a debate in Egypt over whether harassment of women on the streets is a serious issue, or whether it's something women are making up," said Rebecca Chiao, one of the volunteers behind the project. "So HarassMap will have an impact on the ground by revealing the extent of this problem. It will also offer victims a practical way of responding, something to fight back with; as someone who has experienced sexual harassment personally on the streets of Cairo, I know that the most frustrating part of it was feeling like there was nothing I could do."
Harassment of women is believed to be on the rise in Egypt. The only significant recent study on the phenomenon was a survey by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights in 2008, which revealed that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been exposed to some form of sexual harassment, including groping, verbal abuse, stalking and indecent exposure.
Contrary to popular opinion, incidents do not appear to be linked to the woman's style of dress, with three-quarters of victims having been veiled at the time. But efforts to curb the problem have met with resistance.
Although a number of draft laws dealing with sexual harassment are under consideration by parliament, there is still nothing on Egypt's statute books that specifically prohibits harassment – blame for which is often placed on the victim rather than male perpetrators. Just weeks after a series of sexual assaults marred a public holiday two years ago, Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, accused the media of exaggerating the threat posed by sexual harassment, and concerns about tarnishing the country's image have continued to stifle debate on the subject.
"We have to transform the social acceptability of sexual harassment and open up a discussion about solutions," said Chiao. "Egypt is our home. When you have a problem in your home then you fix it because you're proud of it.
"You don't cover it up and hope it goes away. We're not trying to ruin Egypt's reputation, we're just trying to address this problem in a constructive and progressive way."