Egypt has finally made sexual harassment a criminal offense and introduced new punishments for offenders, in an attempt to tackle an epidemic of verbal and physical violence against women.
The new legislation was signed into law by outgoing president Adly Mansour on Thursday, along with a raft of other new measures. Offenders will be hit with prison terms of between six months and five years and fines of between $400 and $7000.
The longer sentences will be handed to harassers who abused a position of power such as being uniformed, a work superior, or carrying a weapon. Penalties will be doubled for repeat offenders.
Egypt had not formerly criminalized sexual harassment before now, although articles in the penal code were sometimes used to prosecute offenders. However, the new legislation introduces a formal definition of the offenses and outlaws sexual language, gestures or behavior conveyed in person or over any other means of communication.
Sexual harassment is shockingly common in Egypt. 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have faced it in some form — 96.5 percent physically, according to a United Nations report released last year.
Activists say incidents have soared in the turmoil that followed the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and sent the police force into disarray.
Some of the most horrifying examples have taken place during mass demonstrations, which followed Mubarak's ouster. In some cases, mobs of thugs took advantage of the lack of security forces present at these gatherings to harass, assault and even gang-rape women with impunity. A Human Rights Watch report released last year documented rampant sexual violence during protests in iconic Tahrir Square. The attacks were extreme. In at least one case a woman was raped with a blade, suffering cuts.
The new legislation is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but rights groups stress that if it is to make a genuine difference, there must be real political desire to take action and a change in attitudes amongst the police — who are sometimes harassers themselves — and the judiciary.
Suggested measures to ensure proper implementation of the new law have included training for police officers in how to deal properly with survivors of rape or sexual violence and encourage them to file charges, and working with the judiciary to ensure judges hand down proper penalties.
This has not been the case before. A report published by the International Federation for Human Rights noted that there were over 250 documented cases of women being attacked by groups of men and boys, often armed, near Tahrir Square between November 2012 and July 2013. Not one of these incidents, it said, resulted in a prosecution.
Mansour, who will leave his post on Sunday after president-elect Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is sworn in, signed a number of other pieces of legislation into law yesterday, including a ban on non-certified Islamic preachers, a three-year tax hike on millionaires, and giving prisoners sentenced to six months or less in jail the option of labor instead.
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