CAIRO: The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) is campaigning for an amendment to legislation which will explicitly criminalize sexual harassment of women.
According to the ECWR, women in Egypt frequently complain of suffering verbal and physical harassment in the street.
“The increased number and severity of reports ECWR received in 2005 from both Egyptian and foreign women living in Egypt has made it clear to us that this problem has reached a point at which women are feeling unsafe and unable to move about freely, in addition to being targeted for harassment in a systematic way by the state institutions meant to protect citizens, an ECWR statement reads.
ECWR began its campaign against sexual harassment in 2005 with a pilot study aimed at measuring the scale of the problem.
“We didn’t expect the problem to be so widespread, Engy Ghozlan, a program manager at ECWR told Daily News Egypt.
“Over the course of a year and a half we received some 2,500 completed surveys from women in six governorates.
“We needed to learn about the problem from women themselves – the surveys acted as a baseline for our project because at that time there existed no data on the problem; there was no organization working on it, Ghozlan continued.
Survey results demonstrated that sexual harassment is not limited by age or social class but, rather, affects all women.
According to the survey the most common form of sexual harassment is inappropriate touching (a problem experienced by 40 percent of all respondents) followed by verbal harassment (30 percent).
Thirty percent of respondents report being harassed on a daily basis but only 12 percent say that they have reported incidents to the police, which ECWR attributes to women’s “complete lack of confidence in Egypt’s police and legal system to protect them from harassers.
Focus groups revealed that Egyptian society often blames the women being harassed.
“We found that some women blame themselves when they are harassed while men claim that women provoke sexual harassment because of the clothes they wear, Ghozlan explained.
ECWR says that its findings demonstrate that “the reasons for the social acceptance, or at least forgiveness, of the sexual harassment of women range from punishment for women’s violation of their traditional role at home, to resistance to women (often second-income earners) holding jobs when there is high unemployment, to a simple lack of understanding by men of the dramatic and traumatic impact of their actions on women.
ECWR launched a media campaign to raise women’s awareness of their right not to have to put up with sexual harassment and to educate men about the emotional and psychological distress that sexual harassment causes to its victims.
The organization has held four awareness-raising days so far, at the last of which it launched its campaign for a law against sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment is not clearly mentioned in Egyptian legislation, Ghozlan explained.
“The Penal Code criminalizes ‘insulting’ behavior under article 306. This covers cat-calling, phone harassment etc but is extremely hard to prove.
“Article 278 meanwhile punishes the next stage of harassment between cat-calling and rape and penalizes touching or indecent exposure. Article 268, meanwhile, criminalizes the rape and abduction of a minor.
“These are the only three articles in the Penal Code which are of relevance to sexual harassment. The law is extremely confusing and it is unclear whether article 306 or article 278 applies to cases of sexual harassment.
ECWR has drawn up a number of recommendations concerning the proposed law, which it is still in the process of drafting.
It suggests that on-the-spot punishments be given to harassers and that the law should precisely and clearly define the meaning of sexual harassment.ECWR particularly emphasises the need for heavy punishment, suggesting that this will have a deterrent effect.
In view of the increasing incidents of cars being used to kidnap and sexually harass women, ECWR also suggests that an amendment should be made to the Traffic Law, which stipulates that checks be made during the application for, or renewal of, driving licences in order to ensure that applicants do not have convictions for vice crimes.
The organization has launched a million-signature petition campaign in support of the law, which it will send to the Ministry of Justice.
In addition, it has drawn up two new surveys, one in which foreign women living in Egypt describe their experience of sexual harassment and another aimed at men.
“Many of the men surveyed admitted to having sexually harassed women and in fact were not shy about admitting it, Ghozlan told Daily News Egypt.
“They’ve been raised to think that they have the licence to do anything they want and that if women don’t conform to traditional norms concerning dress and behavior they are somehow to blame for any sexual harassment which occurs.
ECWR aims to persuade men that they alone are responsible for sexual harassment crimes.
“Men argue that women provoke them, but they are adult human beings with a brain. It’s an old debate which we never agree on, but we always ask them: ‘If you traveled abroad to a European country where dress codes are much more liberal than in Egypt would you feel free to harass women or would you respect the culture?’ Ghozlan explained.
“Women are never to blame for sexual harassment.