Recent reforms by the Egyptian government tackling sexual and gender-based violence in the country fall short of realising long-awaited justice, according to a new briefing by Amnesty International.
“‘Circles of hell’: Domestic, public and state violence against women in Egypt” documents the shortfalls in Egyptian laws. The report also covers the entrenched impunity that continues to foster a culture of routine sexual and gender-based violence, despite “some recent piecemeal reforms”.
“The reality is that women and girls in Egypt face the ever-present, lurking spectre of physical and sexual violence in all facets of life. At home many are subjected to vicious beatings, aggression and abuse from spouses and relatives. In public they face incessant sexual harassment and the risk of mob attacks, when not falling prey to state officials’ violence,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, according to a press release on Tuesday.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) defines gender-based violence as both reflecting and reinforcing inequities between men and women and compromising the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims. “It encompasses a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, trafficking of women and girls and several harmful traditional practices.”
The briefing emphasises three important aspects of physical and sexual violence: sexual mob attacks; women in state custody; and domestic violence and discriminatory divorce laws.
First, the rate of public sexual assaults happening during demonstrations around Cairo’s Tahrir Square has increased in recent years. The briefing refers to the authorities’ lack of due diligence to prevent the attacks or protecting women from violence. It further alludes to Egyptian legislation criminalising rape and other sexual assault falling short of international human rights standards.
There were at least 500 victims of sexual violence reported during the period of February 2011 to January 2014, by a group of civil society organisations. Waves of sexual assault in Tahrir Square occurred repeatedly, where recently at least 9 cases were reported during the celebrations of the inauguration of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
Second, the “deplorable treatment” of female prisoners while in state custody or upon arrest is also documented in the briefing, and third; women experiencing different forms of domestic violence.
Initiatives such as the introduction of a law criminalising sexual harassment are mentioned in the briefing. However, the report contends these reforms have delivered very little and a more comprehensive strategy is still needed “to effectively start tackling violence and engrained discriminatory attitudes towards women”.
Charges against harassers can be made based on articles 306 (a) and 306 (b) of the Penal Code. According to the law; verbal, behavioural, phone and online sexual harassment will attract a prison sentence of six months to five years, and up to EGP 50,000 in fines. The Penal Code also contains other articles that deal with offences of public indecency.
However there are some obstacles in the way of legal redress, given that the laws “lack a good enforcement mechanism” and “they are both vague and limited in their definition of the crimes they refer to,” according to Harassmap, an initiative that attempts to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment through online and offline community mobilisation.
A report issued by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in April 2013 reveals that 99.3% of girls and women are subjected to one form or another of harassment, which confirms the spread of this phenomenon in Egypt. 82.6% of the total female respondents announced that they neither felt secure nor safe in the street, while the rate of the sense of security and safety increases in places of education, in the home, within family circle and relatives and among friends, according to the report.
Amnesty International calls, in its briefing, on authorities to deliver long-awaited comprehensive reform, and to put the issue of violence and discrimination against women at the top of the political agenda for the upcoming parliament in March.