Alexandria volunteers tackle women harassment

Friday 11/12/2015
Two members of the group posing with the campaign slogan.

Cairo - To battle Egypt’s rampant sexual harassment, vol­unteers in the northern coastal city of Alexandria have decided to tackle the problem head-on.
The Alexandria as Safe as in the Past group sends members to public parks, markets and universities to prevent sexual harassment and pro­tect women by delivering the mes­sage that harassing them is an act of cowardice.
“Apart from stemming the tide of sexual harassment, we work to break the cycle of violence that re­sults from this harassment,” said Karim Mahrous, the founder of the group. “We do this by focusing on the places where harassment is widespread.”
Sexual harassment is certainly widespread in Egypt, which, ac­cording to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), comes second only to Af­ghanistan in the prevalence of the issue.
More than 99% of Egyptian wom­en interviewed by UN Women, the gender equality unit of the United Nations, in 2013 said they had been sexually harassed.
Almost 82.6% of women inter­viewed for the study said they did not feel safe on the street and 86.5% said public transport was unsafe.
The study revealed that enact­ment and enforcement of a law ad­dressing sexual harassment was per­ceived as the first step in addressing the problem.
Egypt introduced a law on sexual harassment in June 2014 for the first time. According to the law, verbal, physical, phone and online sexual harassment carries a prison sen­tence from six months to five years, and up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (about $6,300) in fines.
But the law seems to have changed little in a country where of­ten victims of sexual harassment are blamed for inciting the act.
Recently, a woman who was beat­en outside a Cairo shopping mall for trying to resist the man harass­ing her was ridiculed by a female TV host who commented on the “skinny” trousers the victim was wearing.
In other cases, women were blamed for being harassed with some people saying that “revealing clothes” worn by the victims tempt men to harass them.
However, that does not explain cases in which women who are to­tally covered, either by wearing the full veil or long clothes, are still har­assed.
Several groups are emerging to fight sexual harassment, particu­larly during social and religious oc­casions, which result in widespread instances of such behaviour.
Some people say the groups re­flect a growing public desperation with official inaction. The groups say when they catch somebody in the act of harassing women and hand him to police, the perpetrator is often released without charge.
Alexandria as Safe as in the Past is different in that its members do not only try to prevent harassment but also attempt to change the culture of harassment. They do this by dis­tributing flyers to young men on the streets. They go everywhere in Al­exandria to talk to everybody about the “devastating” effects of harass­ment.
“We also give these people infor­mation about the legal punishment they can receive in case they harass women on the streets,” Mahrous said.
The group has a legal action unit that encourages women to speak out against the harassment and helps them file legal proceedings against harassers, according to Mohamed Abba, another founder of the group.
It has also set up a medical re­sponse unit to offer medical and post-traumatic support to harass­ment victims, Abba added.
Some victims, especially those subjected to rape, end up with se­rious physical injuries and psycho­logical trauma.
The campaign has now been cop­ied in other provinces, including more conservative ones in southern Egypt and in the Nile Delta.
Mahrous said the initiative had been copied in nine other provinc­es, deploying volunteers to public places and setting up legal action and medical response teams to help victims.
“There is a marked change in pub­lic culture about harassment,” Mah­rous said. “In the past, some people used to either give excuse to harass­ers or justify their actions but now this is changing altogether.”