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99.3% of Egyptian Women, Girls Have Been Sexually Harassed

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New research from U.N. Women finds that 99.3 percent of women have suffered sexual harassment in Egypt. Slightly less (91.5 percent) have experienced unwelcome physical contact.

Released last week, the study confirms that harassment and assault occur irrespective of a woman's appearance, conduct or manner of dress. This comports with similar U.S.-based research suggesting that most men cat-call women to alleviate boredom, for instance, and as a form of "male-bonding." Moreover, additional studies suggest harassment is undergirded by the perpetrator's need to dominate (rather than engage in intimate relations with) his victim.

This particular finding is significant because it undermines a popular narrative linking harassment to a Muslim woman's attributes or conduct. Illustrative is a book titled, "Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions," published by the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments. Distributed to mosques throughout Egypt several years ago, it suggests that some women may be "asking for harassment" for these very reasons.

In fact, more than 90 percent of the male respondents in the U.N. Women study made a similar linkage, attributing harassment to a woman's provocative clothing (96.3 percent), inviting conduct (97.5 percent), enticing make-up application (95.2 percent), disregard for cultural traditions (94.9 percent), walk (93.3 percent) and talk (94.4 percent) and participation in non-marital relations with the opposite gender (95.7 percent).

In addition to being misinformed, these attitudes also perpetuate the stereotype that men are incapable of self-control.

The new report also studied the question of effects. Effects are in fact wide-ranging: from reports of increased anxiety and a diminished sense of security to claims that spouses engaged in domestic violence after learning of the incident. In extreme cases, divorce ensued due to increased sentiments of jealousy and suspicion.

Such spousal responses underscore the necessity of related educational initiatives not only to empower women and girls, but to also promote peace within and cohesion of families.

Notably, the U.N. Women report emphasizes the importance of political and religious leaders' increased engagement so as to positively influence popular opinion; they must condemn all forms of gender violence.

It also recommends new legal protections for women and girls by explicitly criminalizing sexual harassment in Egypt's penal code. In its absence, women commonly file complaints pursuant to Egyptian criminal laws prohibiting "insulting," "indecent behavior" and "sexual assault." The proposed legal reforms would help facilitate redress for victims while conveying a potentially powerful message (if properly implemented and enforced) to would-be perpetrators.

To be sure, such legislation should define sexual harassment as encompassing its verbal, physical and visual dimensions. Moreover, a corresponding civil legal component should also be enacted to safeguard against harassment in employment and educational settings.

Preventative measures should be undertaken and civil liability should attach when those in authority fail to pursue sufficient corrective action upon learning of a legal infraction. Significantly, such legal reform will help bring Egypt into compliance with its international legal commitments.

Moreover, law enforcement officials should be required to attend related gender sensitivity trainings because they frequently persuade women to dismiss complaints so as not to "create a scandal" or they subscribe to a 'blame the victim' mentality.

Trainings should therefore convey the significance of conducting full investigations into reported incidents with appropriate gendered sensitivity. Theoretically such initiatives should help ensure appropriate intervention by officials to stop harassment of women and girls.

Notwithstanding these obstacles women have demonstrated agency by commencing several related lawsuits; the vast majority of women fail to report such incidents, however.

Notably, the role of civil society actors has become more pronounced in combating gender-based violence particularly following the Jan. 25 Revolution.

Illustrative is "Welad El Balad," which translates in English to "The Country's Children." A male-led initiative founded in 2011, men work to raise awareness concerning the legal, psychological and social consequences of sexual harassment.

Another initiative -- Harassmap -- permits women to send a text message reporting an incident that is mapped on a public website. The tool informs the authorities and citizens in order to facilitate community empowerment. It also provides women with information on victim resources.

The grass roots movement against sexual harassment and assault has positively influenced Egyptian popular culture as well, with at least one feature film and a televised public service announcement confronting the problem.

All of these initiatives bode well for future legal reform as laws frequently represent social manifestations of its indigenous population. And the U.N. Women's study underscores the urgency underlying enacting, implementing and enforcing reform to protect women and girls who occupy public spaces, study in educational settings and contribute to the workplace.

Indeed, even one abused woman or girl is one too many. It is way past time for Egypt, and all societies, to protect, respect and honor its women and girls.

Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. This article originally derives from a policy brief prepared for the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.