How Egypt can turn the tide on sexual assault
In recent days, and repeatedly over the past few years, mobs of men violently attacked women and girls taking part in demonstrations in Tahrir Square. This time the attacks took place during the June 3-8 celebrations of the election and inauguration of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the man now tasked with ensuring the safety of all Egyptians.
After the attacks, President Sisi instructed the minister of the interior to “take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment,” and even visited the victim of a sexual attack in the hospital to apologize, promising to hold the perpetrators accountable. But the commitments Sisi recently made to end rampant sexual harassment and assault must be realized.
Egyptian non-governmental organizations documented at least nine incidents of mob sexual assaults and harassment in Tahrir Square during post-election and inauguration celebrations. In response, the Ministry of Interior reported the arrests of seven men, and the public prosecution opened an investigation into three other men suspected of attacking a 42-year-old woman. Ehab Badawi, the presidential spokesman, issued a statement that announced that Sisi had ordered the formation of a ministerial committee with the participation of both Muslim and Christian religious establishments, to “identify the reasons for the spread of the phenomena of harassment and determine a national strategy to address it.” On June 12, the committee met for the first time, which included the prime minister, the ministers of interior, education, social solidarity and religious endowments, as well as the head of the National Council for Women, and representatives from Al-Azhar Mosque and the Coptic Orthodox Church. They proposed plans that included increasing security for women in public squares and gatherings, as well as raising awareness about harassment against women through media campaigns and schools.
However, if Sisi is serious about putting an end to the plague of sexual harassment and assault on Egypt's streets, he needs to ensure that the next steps go beyond such measures. The new committee should be tasked with the responsibility to look at a comprehensive, integrated approach including legislation and a national strategy that protects women in Egypt from all forms of violence.
Such a response must recognize that the inauguration attacks are the tip of the iceberg. Sexual harassment and assault has become so rife that many women dread walking in public in Egypt.
On June 9, Egyptian rights groups reported that there were at least 500 survivors of mob rape and mob sexual assault between February 2011 and January 2014, as well as thousands of women subjected to sexual harassment. Last year, Human Rights Watch documented epidemic sexual violence in Egypt, including at least 91 attacks between June 30 and July 3, 2013 during demonstrations, as well as the weak government response.
On June 5, just days before the most recent spate of attacks, outgoing President Adly Mansour’s Decree No. 50 of 2014 on sexual harassment came into force. The decree has been heralded as “the sexual harassment law,” but it should be better understood as two narrow amendments to the existing Penal Code.
The decree changes the definitions of harassment and sexual harassment. Harassment is now defined as accosting others in a private, public, or frequented place with acts, gestures, or suggestions that are sexual or obscene, verbally, physically or through other non-verbal means or actions, including modern means of communication. Offenders can be sentenced to at least six months imprisonment and/or a fine of LE3,000-LE5,000 (approximately US$420-$700). Such actions constitute sexual harassment in those cases where the offender “intended to receive sexual gratification from the victim,” increasing the penalty to at least one year imprisonment and/or a fine of 5,000-10,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately US$700-1,400).
The decree also increases penalties in certain circumstances, such as when the offender is in a position of authority over the victim “through employment, family or education,” or if “the crime was committed by two or more people, or at least one of the offenders is armed with a weapon.” They can be sentenced to two to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of LE20,000-LE50,000 (approximately US$2,800-$7000).
These amendments, recent criminal investigations, and the formation of a ministerial committee are a good start. But they do not go far enough. On June 9, 25 Egyptian rights groups called for a comprehensive law on violence against women and a national strategy to implement the newly approved laws. A comprehensive approach to violence against women is exactly what is needed.
This is what the Sisi government and the new committee should do.
First, enact further legal reforms. The Penal Code needs a comprehensive, modern definition of rape and a clear definition of sexual assault. Article 267 of the Penal Code refers to rape as “whosoever has sexual intercourse with a female without her consent.” The term “rape” should include all forms of penetration without consent or in coercive circumstances that negate consent, including vaginal, anal, and oral penetration by any body part or by other instruments. Articles 268 and 269 of the Penal Code criminalize “indecent assault,” but do not define “indecent assault.” The government should also enact legislation on all forms of violence against women which address prevention of violence, and protection and support of survivors, including for instance domestic violence.
Second, formulate a comprehensive national strategy on violence against women to implement such legislation. This should include a monitoring mechanism to oversee implementation of legislation which reports to parliament, and craft national protocols and strategies for all relevant ministries. The authorities should consult with Egyptian women’s rights groups and survivors when drafting the strategy and any new legislation, and coordinate with all components of society in a position to raise awareness. There should be a mechanism to fund implementation of the legislative reforms and strategy.
Thirdly, the government needs to develop protocols on ensuring adequate medical and psycho-social support for victims of sexual assault. These should address confidentiality, dealing with trauma, referring victims for other services, and providing timely treatment. Training should be provided to police and medical officials on all such protocols and laws.
The authorities can look to the United Nations Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women which sets out components on combating violence against women.
The Egyptian authorities are required to act—both under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Egypt is a state party, and Egypt’s new Constitution, to protect “women against all forms of violence.”
Sisi’s public statements since the inauguration day attacks are a positive first step. However, turning the tide on sexual violence requires the implementation of a comprehensive and coordinated approach that tackles all forms of violence against women.