Amid widening social media campaigns to encourage victims of sexual harassment to open up and tell their stories and reveal the identity of the harassers, there has been an outpouring of social support for survivors of such assaults. The National Council for Women (NCW) has released a statement urging victims to take legal action against harassers. But that’s not all. Earlier this week the cabinet approved a bill that guarantees the confidentiality of survivors of sexual assault and harassment. Head of the NCW Maya Morsy tells Al-Ahram Weekly about the council’s current and future efforts to deal with the problem.
Why was a new law introduced and to what extent can it help combat harassment?
The suggested new law is an amendment in the Criminal Procedures Law. It helps protect the confidentiality of the victim so that the victim’s name or contact information are not revealed in any investigation documents or reports that might cause problems for the victim if shared with the predator at the wrong time. The suggested amendment makes sure that the investigation takes the right direction without causing any pressure or psychological damage to the victim that might demotivate her to proceed with the case.
Harassment has always been a problem in Egypt. There were often incidents that enraged society before. What are the actions being taken this time to make sure that it is really being dealt with?
Egypt has exerted a lot of effort to combat violence against women at large and harassment specifically. There is a strong framework. We have a constitution that explicitly states in Article 11 that the state shall protect women against all forms of violence. In 2015 a national strategy for combating violence against women was launched. In 2017 the Egyptian president endorsed a national strategy, the Empowerment of Egyptian Women 2030, which has a specific pillar for protection from all forms of violence and discrimination against women.
Practically speaking, Egypt has paved the way for ending harassment through three main components: legislation, training and awareness raising.
On the legislative level, the law is there to protect women from harassment. Articles 306 (a) and 306 (b) of the Penal Code of 2014 was amended to criminalise sexual harassment and expand the scope of criminalisation to include the family, school and work environment.
On the institutional level, we have the National Complaints office with its hotline 15115 as a means to report incidents, a specialised Violence Against Women (VAW) unit within the Ministry of Interior, three VAW clinics within the department of forensic medicine, 21 anti-harassment units in universities, training programmes for law enforcement authorities and public prosecution and judiciary bodies on VAW and the essential service packages for women who might be subjected to violence.
On the awareness raising level, several campaigns were launched to raise public awareness on this crime. Among those is the Secret of Your Power campaign which started its first phase by addressing harassment in public spaces and transportation. Several videos and short movies were also launched in cooperation with development partners to raise awareness on the cause. Also, there is the Knocking Doors campaign that NCW is launching all over the governorates of Egypt to raise awareness on violence against women’s issues and harassment and which provides means of reporting to women. The latest on the ground campaign the NCW has initiated was the metro campaign in four of the most dynamic stations with around two million visitors per day. Awareness raising campaigns don’t only target women victims or the predator. The campaign targets the witnesses of a crime and encourages them to take action.
The NCW is monitoring and observing social media and media platforms. In the latest case, for instance, the NCW’s complaints office immediately connected with the prosecution-general office, filed a report and issued several statements to assure the victims that they are supported and to motivate them to report any harassment or violence that they were subjected to if they wish to do so. The women’s complaints office provides legal and psychological assistance to the victims. Moreover, Egyptian authorities took immediate action to start the investigation with the predator, while announcing the suggested law to assure the victims that they are protected and their data is confidential. The strong coordination between all concerned authorities is crucial and the NCW is working on all levels with all partners to ensure that women have their own rights.
Is other legislation in the pipeline to deal with this problem or modifications to make sure punishment is harsher?
The penal code already has a law against harassment. Articles 306 (a) and 306 (b) of the Penal Code of 2015 was amended to criminalise sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is for the first time defined by the law. Accordingly, verbal, physical, behavioural, phone and online sexual harassment is punished by a prison sentence ranging between six months and five years, and up to LE50,000 in fines, representing a major step towards achieving safety for Egyptian women and girls in public spaces.
At this stage we are working on the application of the law itself while providing all the means for girls and women to report if they want to. The current law is in favour of Egyptian women.
More legislative amendments are being prepared and efforts made to ensure the protection of women from all forms of violence against them.
To what extent has social media encouraged many to come forward with their stories?
Social media has a great impact. The movements and campaigns are very dynamic which is important to encourage women to tell their stories. It provides space for the public to come forward whether anonymously or not. Story-telling is an important step, however, we want to encourage girls to file official reports so that they can take their full rights as set forth in the constitution.
Furthermore, Egyptian authorities have also shown great determination to follow up on social media platforms and use them to provide awareness and direct messages to the public through those platforms. For instance, the prosecution’s office recently issued a decree to establish a media and social media department to follow up and engage with citizens.
The NCW also uses those platforms to reach out to the public and create awareness raising and interactive campaigns and designing messages in a language that is friendly to social media users.
Therefore, Egyptian entities are taking the stories mentioned or told on social media seriously.
Going forward, what does the NCW plan to do to combat this phenomenon?
The NCW will be working on two components: The first is more legislative amendments and the second is intensifying awareness-raising initiatives and campaigns to raise the awareness of the public on this crime and its legal consequences and means of reporting it.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly