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Internet project helps women report harassment

HarassMap website will identify hotspots and inform victims about support services

Gulf News

Cairo: Women walking the streets of Cairo have long endured pervasive sexual harassment, with little support. But now a group of independent volunteers has introduced a web-based project to help women fight back against the abuse that often leaves them feeling powerless.

In December 2010 HarassMap was launched — a website devoted to collecting and publishing reports of Cairo's endemic sexual harassment.

Its creators don't claim it will solve the issue. But they hope by raising awareness the project will help turn the tide of abuse that affects nearly every woman who lives in Egypt.

"Our goal with HarassMap is to change the social acceptability of harassment," says Rebecca Chiao, one of its founders.

That's a lofty goal in Egypt, where a 2008 survey conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights revealed 62 per cent of men admitted to harassing women. Eighty-three per cent of Egyptian women surveyed, and 98 per cent of foreign women, said they had experienced harassment. The abuse, which takes place regardless of what a woman is wearing, ranges from catcalls, stares, and street comments to molesting, groping, indecent exposure, and assault.

The website, built with the Ushahidi open-source mapping software first used to report post-election violence in Kenya in 2008 and being implemented ahead of Egypt's November 28 elections, will allow women to send reports by text message, Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail when they are harassed.

They can report the location and type of abuse, and the reports then show up on a map of Egypt. Women who send in reports will receive a message back with information on support services and how to file a police complaint.

Outreach in hotspots

The organisers plan to use the map to identify harassment hot spots, and then conduct community outreach in those areas, talking with community figures to discuss ways to prevent the harassment. The map will give them a way to prove that harassment is a problem that needs to be addressed in a country where many have denied it.

"The map is a basic stepping-off point that helps engage everyone and creates a bit of proof. For us it's a tool to engage people on an individual level," said Chiao, who has worked on women's rights issues for a number of years in Egypt. "The only way it's going to change is if we take some ownership, so we're targeting shop owners, especially because they're a presence in the neighbourhood. We'll tell them when they see harassment, to speak up."