Law14/2021, which amends articles of the 58/1937 Penal Law to increase the penalties for sexual harassment, was ratified by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 18 August.
The changes, passed in July by the House of Representatives, stiffen the penalties faced by those found guilty of sexual harassment, including the perpetration of harassment via social media.
The new amendments represent an advance for women in the face of sexual harassment to which society has generally adopted an apathetic approach, says Maya Morsy, president of the National Council for Women (NCW). A major contributing factor to the prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt, says Morsy, is social tolerance of the problem. The prevailing atmosphere, she argues, is one in which the violation of women’s right to privacy remains acceptable to many.
“The social acceptance of sexual harassment targeting women comes in many forms. Women facing verbal, and sometimes even physical assault in the street, are not offered help. And there is a culture of victim blaming, in which women are deemed responsible for somehow triggering the attack.”
Nihad Abul-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR), predicts incidents of sexual harassment to fall by up to 95 per cent if the law is rigorously enforced.
Under the new amendments punishments for those found guilty of sexual harassment, have been increased from a one-year custodial sentence and/or a fine of LE10,000 to detention for a period of between two and four years and/or a fine of LE100,000 to LE200,000. The provisions cover harassment by word or deed using wireless, electronic, or other telecommunication devices, as well as verbal and physical harassment in public and private spaces.
First time repeat offenders, and those found guilty of stalking their victims, face a minimum sentence of three years, and/or a fine that can reach LE300,00. In cases where the felonies continue penalties automatically double.
Penalties are even tougher for those who abuse positions of trust, like in situations in which the offender is in a position to exercise occupational or familial authority over the victim, or when the crime is committed by two or more persons, one or both of whom is carrying a weapon. In such cases, minimum custodial sentences of seven years, and fines of between LE300,000 and LE500,000 apply. Before the amendments the penalties were a two-year prison sentence, and a fine of between LE20,000-LE50,000.
A study conducted by UN Women in Egypt, in cooperation with the Cairo Demographic Centre, found 99.3 per cent of the women surveyed had been subjected to some form of harassment, and that children under 14 comprised the victims of 39 per cent of sexual assault cases. Of the total number of victims, 86.8 per cent had suffered verbal abuse and 79.2 per cent had been subjected to repeated pestering over the telephone.
A study by the Population Council found 40 per cent of women aged from 13 to 35 had been physically or verbally assaulted either in the street or on public transport. In informal, urban, and rural areas sexual assault rates were reported at 61.6 per cent, 47.7 per cent, and 32.6 per cent respectively.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly