While working with one of the civil society organizations in Egypt in 2005, American citizen Rebecca Chao and her three Egyptian colleagues were subjected to a tremendous amount of sexual harassment on a daily basis, according to Chao.
"What disturbed us in particular was that no one helped us. These things happen in any country, anywhere, and at anytime, but when it happens and no one helps you, it's very scary," she adds.
Chao, along with Engy Ghezlan, Amal Fahmy, and Sawsan Gad, founded the Harassment Map in an attempt to raise awareness and stop sexual harassment in Egypt. Chao decided to investigate the issue before launching the initiative to understand whether sexual harassment was a widespread phenomenon throughout Egyptian society, or just as series of individual incidents.
After extensive research, Chao concluded that sexual harassment was a widespread phenomenon affecting most women in Egypt. She then decided to confront the issue.
With the help of friends and volunteers, the four women launched a campaign under the slogan "Let's make our streets safer for all" to address sexual harassment in Egypt. The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights helped support the campaign.
With the media’s increasing interest in the issue of sexual harassment, many civil society organizations concerned with women's rights showed their own support for the initiative, as well as backing the development of laws to curb and prevent sexual harassment in Egypt, considered a crime according to Egyptian law.
Articles 306 (a) and 306 (b) of the Penal Code address perpetrators of sexual harassment. Many harassers have been tried in accordance with these articles. The initiative stresses the need for the law to continue to be applied.
Perpetrators of verbal or behavioral sexual harassment, whether on the street, by phone, or on the Internet are sentenced to anywhere between six months and five years in prison, as well as a fine of up to LE 50,000.
Instead of waiting for the government to take action against this phenomenon, however, Chao and the other founders of the initiative thought of launching the Harassment Map, as an urgent and practical step against sexual harassment.
"We worked on promoting this issue on our own when we started, and at that time we could not even utter the word 'sexual harassment,’" said Chao.
The four founders spent several years working on the issue within a society that has become tolerant toward the growing phenomenon despite its religious composition of Muslims and Christians. They talked to a lot of people on the topic, and shared ideas on how to confront this issue.
Finally, the time had come to start the first independent anti-sexual harassment campaign of its kind in Egypt. According to the initiative's official website, the founders decided to apply both the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi technologies to their organization to help move the campaign forward.
According to a June 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Human Rights in Cairo, sexual harassment was described as a "rampant disease." The study concluded that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women said they had experienced sexual harassment in Egypt, while 62 percent of men admitted to having been perpetrators. Fifty-three percent of men blamed women for wearing "provocative" clothing, however the study indicated that even women covered in loose clothing were subject to sexual harassment.
Hope for the future
Since 97 percent of Egyptians - half of them women - have mobile phones, they can easily access the organization’s guidelines, including the Ushahidi maps. This application will allow women to report sexual harassment through SMS, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail. The report includes information about the incident, as well as the location in which it happened. Women will then receive tips on how to react.
The organization’s volunteers comb the streets and meet citizens in places where sexual harassment reports were made in order to mobilize the community against the phenomenon, stop allowing harassers to give excuses for their behavior and convince people to speak up and act out against sexual harassment.
"We are very pleased that sexual harassment has moved from being a taboo topic to a subject discussed extensively and addressed by many new independent initiatives," said the organizations’ officials on their website.
Harassmap.org also mentions that change has already begun to appear on the streets of Egypt, as the volunteers who go on field awareness campaigns in residential areas or neighborhoods report that approximately eight out of every 10 people have responded to them and agreed at the end of the conversation that they should confront harassers.
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