New courts in Egypt to fight violence against women

Friday 15/01/2016
Heavy load. Egypt’s High Court in Cairo.

Cairo - The Egyptian Justice Min­istry’s decision to set up special courts to handle cases of violence against women should also em­power them and bring perpetrators to justice, rights activists say.

“Culprits used to act with im­punity, knowing that they will not be brought to court or even pun­ished by the authorities,” Nehad Abul Komsan, a women’s rights advocate, said. “However, the new courts will put an end to this impu­nity.”

Egypt does not have a law on violence against women and cases are usually heard under the coun­try’s criminal code.

But Justice Minister Ahmed el- Zend said the new courts would aim to bring quick and effective justice to women victims of vio­lence and hold the perpetrators to account.

Egypt’s women and girls face violence on a disturbing scale both at home and in public, including sexual mob attacks as well as tor­ture in state custody, Amnesty In­ternational says.

The London-based rights group, in a report released in January, quotes survivors who describe brutal physical and psychological abuse, saying that their spouses had beaten, whipped and burned them and, in some cases, locked them inside the house against their will.

The women also spoke about how the legal system had failed them, Amnesty International said in its report: Circles of Hell: Do­mestic, Public and State Violence Against Women in Egypt, which documents how, despite piece­meal reforms, shortfalls in Egyp­tian laws and entrenched impunity foster a culture of routine sexual and gender-based violence.

The report says many problems stem from prejudiced attitudes and are exacerbated by what it describes as the “discriminatory” Egyptian personal status law and other provisions that put up insur­mountable obstacles for women to prove that their spouses have harmed them.

Support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence barely exists, Amnesty International says.

Women who report an attack are confronted with several obsta­cles, including a lack of interest by security forces or prosecutors, as well as inadequate criminal laws, with domestic violence and mari­tal rape not explicitly criminalised, the report adds, noting that this leads many women to suffer in si­lence.

The organisation notes that what it terms as a “deeply discriminato­ry” divorce system in Egypt often leaves women trapped in abusive relationships.

While men may unilaterally divorce their wives without pro­viding any justification, Amnesty International says women must ei­ther forfeit their financial rights by accepting a “no-fault” (“khol”) di­vorce or be prepared to fight a long and costly court battle to prove that their husbands “harmed” them.

Abul Komsan says the new courts will keep face many of these problems but notes that courts alone will not dramatically change the conditions of women for the better.

“I mean the presence of these courts makes it necessary for some new legislation to be introduced,” Abul Komsan said. “Cases of vio­lence against women should not be solely left for the courts where judges will rule according to their personal whims, not the law.”

Abul Komsan has been work­ing for the empowerment of the nation’s women for decades. She says she had seen women who — although they are subjected to se­vere violence at the hands of their husbands, fathers and sometimes brothers — do not report their cas­es for fear that the relatives would be put in jail.

Several local organisations have been trying to alter this trend by teaching women their legal rights and lobbying for legislative chang­es that can offer the necessary pro­tection to victims.

During a recent seminar in Cairo, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights called on parliament to in­troduce legislation on violence against women, referring to a surge in this violence, especially in recent years.

Shahenda Meqled, a member of the state-run National Human Rights Council, links this surge in violence against women to the po­litical rise of the nation’s Islamists.

She says they had imposed a set of Wahhabi ideas, especially when it comes to the role of women and the way they should be treated, on society.

“Marginalising women, putting them in scorn and making them disappear from public life was the end goal of everything done by these Islamists in the past four years,” Meqled said. “This was why women bore the brunt of all the violence that happened in our society during those years.”