Four offices providing women in Egypt with legal advice and social support in the face of violence opened yesterday. The British Council's Doaa Hafez looks at the issues and how the My Right programme can help.
According to a United Nations report in 2010, 'violence against women remains widespread across the world, exacerbated by traditions and customary practices that determine the way women are treated in families, places of work and communities.'
Egypt is no exception. Violence towards women and girls in all its forms – sexual, physical, verbal, emotional and psychological – has increased dramatically in the country over the past few years. The phenomenon is not limited anymore to a particular context; it is happening within and outside the family.
According to a study conducted in 2008 by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), sexual harassment has rapidly increased, with 62 per cent of Egyptian men admitting to having sexually harassed women and more than 80 per cent of Egyptian women reporting incidents of this kind.
What is behind the recent increase in violence toward women and girls in Egypt?
There is a range of reasons. However, research for the My Right programme shows that male unemployment accounts for much of the aggressive behaviour at home. Unemployed men tend to be violent to prove that they are still in control, despite the fact that they don’t contribute to the household income.
The lack of employment opportunities and engagement in positive social change in Egypt are also leading to other negative activities, such as drug use, which in turn has an impact on violence against women.
What stands in the way of solving this problem?
The main challenge is the lack of women reporting incidents of violence. Getting hold of official statistics that might help change the laws is therefore almost impossible. Women are reluctant to report violence to the police, believing that nothing will really change.
Another challenge is changing perceptions. Studies and surveys have shown that Egyptian men still believe that female clothes and behaviour are the main 'reasons' for sexual harassment. Raising awareness of other factors, such as those mentioned earlier, is therefore crucial.
What can be done?
The My Right programme, for example, helps women know and understand their rights. It has been inspired by Victim Support UK in establishing women support centres in Egypt. The centres dispense expert legal advice to women and girls who are subject to violence.
Psychological and social support is also there to help traumatised women make choices and decide for themselves.
Where will the offices open and who's involved?
According to statistics from the National Centre for Social and Criminal Research, the following four cities have the highest rates of violence against women: North Cairo, Alexandria, Aswan and Tanta.
The Ministry of Justice has made spaces available for centres inside the courts of the four cities and also recruited individuals who can deliver free, quality support. The selected individuals have undergone extensive training by UK and Egyptian organisations to deal with and respond to the cases of violence against women.
The ministry also recognises that working closely with civil society will improve matters. They have paired up with the Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development Center (ACT) and the British Council, which is seen as a gateway to UK expertise in this sensitive and difficult area of work, and able to support relationships between state and civil society organisations.
ACT have conducted research on the four selected cities to understand what services are already available in these areas. They have also recruited a solicitor who can help the victim, if she decides to take the case to court.
Alongside the programme, there will be a campaign to challenge the social acceptance of violence against women and girls. The British Council will build on the work of organisations such as HarassMap, which allows women to report harassment online.
What does the future hold for women and girls in Egypt?
It is hard to predict what the future holds for women and girls in Egypt. Arguably, change will never happen unless women really lead on it: The increase in reporting will, for example, help the government understand the root cause of the problem and decide what to do.
My Right is a programme run by British Council in Egypt, the Ministry of Justice and ACT, and funded by the British Embassy in Cairo. It works on bringing together the efforts of the Egyptian government and civil society to put an end to all forms of violence against women.