CAIRO — Women walking the streets of Cairo have long endured pervasive sexual harassment, with little support. But now a group of independent volunteers is introducing a web-based project to help women fight back against the abuse that often leaves them feeling powerless.
Next month the group will launch HarassMap, a website devoted to collecting and publishing reports of Cairo’s endemic sexual harassment. Its creators, who have already debuted the website for pilot testing, don’t claim it will solve the issue. But they hope that by raising awareness the project will help turn the tide of abuse that affects nearly every woman who lives in Egypt.
“Our goal with HarassMap is to change the social acceptability of harassment,” says Rebecca Chiao, one of the project’s founders.
That’s a lofty goal in Egypt, where a 2008 survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights revealed that 62 percent of men admitted to harassing women. Eighty-three percent of Egyptian women surveyed, and 98 percent of foreign women, said they had experienced harassment.
The abuse, which takes place regardless of what a woman is wearing, ranges from catcalls, stares, and comments on the street to molesting, groping, indecent exposure, and assault.
Women can Twitter, text, or e-mail abuse
The website, built with the Ushahidi open-source mapping software first used to report postelection violence in Kenya in 2008 and being implemented ahead of Egypt’s Nov. 28 elections, will allow women to send reports by text message, Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail when they are harassed.
They report the location and type of abuse, and the reports then show up on a map of Egypt. Women who send in reports will receive a message back with information on support services and how to file a police report.
Getting shop owners involved
The organizers plan to use the map to identify harassment hot spots, and then conduct community outreach in those areas, talking with community figures to discuss ways to prevent the harassment. The map will give them a way to prove that harassment is a problem that needs to be addressed in a country where many have denied it.
“The map is a basic stepping-off point that helps engage everyone and creates a bit of proof. For us it’s a tool to engage people on an individual level,” says Ms. Chiao, who has worked on women’s rights issues for a number of years in Egypt. “The only way it’s going to change is if we take some ownership, so we’re targeting shop owners especially because they’re a presence in the neighborhood. We’ll tell them when they see harassment, to speak up.”
They may even ask the shop owners to also host “safe spaces” where women can go to escape sexual harassment.
Is technology accessible enough?
HarassMap is a completely volunteer project and does not accept funding. Chiao speaks excitedly about the sense of involvement the project engenders among volunteers and support they’ve received from individuals and organizations donating time, technological help, and publicity.
But that independence also poses challenges – chiefly, raising awareness without funds to conduct a campaign or post advertisements. Noha Aly, of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Aid (CEWLA), says it will be difficult to reach many women, particularly those who don’t regularly use the Internet.
“The main challenge of this methodology is the use of technology, because not all women have access to technology,” she says. “A lot of molestation or sexual harassment is performed against women in poorer areas, and many women who live in such areas do not have such technology.”
Some women may not trust that the reporting will be anonymous, she says, and admitting harassment or molestation can be shameful in a society where it’s taboo to mention it. Many women who come to CEWLA are reticent to speak about such issues. But that’s changing, says Ms. Aly, thanks in large part to a woman who pressed charges against a man for groping her in 2008 – a case discussed widely in the media.
HarassMap creator Engy Ghozlan points to the fact that there are 55 million mobile phone subscribers and counting in Egypt, a nation of nearly 80 million. That makes HarassMap accessible to a large segment of the population, if they know about it.
Rights groups: Egypt needs law defining harassment as crime
Chiao said the group is working on awareness strategies. Significantly, the creators of a new film coming out in Egypt, “678,” that deals with the topic of sexual harassment have offered to promote the site in the movie advertisements. That will be a huge publicity boost, says Chiao, and she hopes to have the site up and running by the release of the movie in mid-December.
HarassMap is currently in a testing phase, accepting online reports only. The site received such an overwhelming response on its first day, Nov. 4, that the server was temporarily overloaded.
Hurdles remain, however. Women’s rights groups say Egypt needs a new law that clearly defines sexual harassment as a crime and eases reporting of incidents to police, which is nearly impossible in a country where the abuse isn’t widely seen as a problem.
The creators of HarassMap don’t deny the difficulties. “We’re not claiming that HarassMap is going to solve the problem of reporting,” says Ms. Ghozlan. “But it will give you a window, an opportunity to say, ‘This is happening. Do you want to be part of solving this problem?’”