How Egypt can turn the tide on sexual assault

Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has responded to the growing outcry over mob sexual violence against women in public places by setting up a ministerial committee. More, much more, however needs to be done.

Rothna Begum
17 June 2014
Women demonstrating against sexual violence in Cairo

Shout it out: heading for Tahrir on a march against sexual harassment in 2013. Gigi Ibrahim / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Repeatedly over the past few years, mobs of men have violently attacked women and girls taking part in demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The latest attacks took place during the 3-8 June celebrations of the election and inauguration of the 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 hospital to apologise, promising to hold the perpetrators accountable. But the commitments Sisi recently made to end rampant sexual harassment and assault must be realised.

Egyptian non-governmental organisations 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 service opened an investigation into three other men suspected of attacking a 42-year-old woman.

Ehab Badawi, the presidential spokesperson, issued a statement saying 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 phenomenon of harassment and determine a national strategy to address it”. On 12 June, the committee met for the first time. It included the prime minister and 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 which included increasing security for women in public squares and gatherings, as well as raising awareness about harassment against women through media campaigns and schools.

Integrated approach

If Sisi is serious about putting an end to the plague of sexual harassment and assault on Egypt's streets, however, he needs to ensure that the next steps go beyond such measures. The new committee should be tasked with responsibility to look at a comprehensive, integrated approach—including legislation and a national strategy which protects women in Egypt from all forms of violence.

Such a response must recognise 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 9 June, Egyptian rights groups reported that there at least 500 women had survived mob rape and sexual assault between February 2011 and January 2014, with thousands more subjected to sexual harassment. Last year, Human Rights Watch documented epidemic sexual violence in Egypt—including at least 91 attacks between 30 June and 3 July 2013 during demonstrations—as well as the weak government response.

On 5 June, a decree on sexual harassment issued by the outgoing president, Adly Mansour, came into force. The decree has been heralded as “the sexual harassment law” but it is 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 which are sexual or obscene—verbally, physically or otherwise non-verbal, including modern means of communication. Offenders can be sentenced to at least six months imprisonment and/or a fine of LE3,000-5,000 (approximately US$420-700). Such actions constitute sexual harassment in those cases where the offender “intended to receive sexual gratification from the victim” for them and increases the penalty to at least one year imprisonment and/or a fine of LE5,000-10,000 (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 LE20,000-50,000 (approximately US$2,800-7000).

Not enough

These amendments, the recent criminal investigations and the formation of a ministerial committee are a good start. But they do not go far enough. On 9 June, the rights groups also 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 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 which negate consent, including vaginal, anal and oral penetration by any body part or instrument. Articles 268 and 269 of the code criminalise “indecent assault” but do not define it. The government should also enact legislation on all forms of violence against women—including, for instance, domestic violence—which addresses the prevention of violence and the protection and support of survivors.

Secondly, formulate a comprehensive national strategy on violence against women to implement such legislation. This should include a monitoring mechanism, which reports to parliament, to oversee the implementation of legislation 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 co-ordinate with all sections 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 to 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 the components of 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. But turning the tide on sexual violence requires the implementation of a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach which tackles all forms of violence against women. 

This article first appeared in Mada Masr. It is reproduced by consent with appreciation.

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