Online mapping aims to stop harassment of women in Egypt

Tech startup HarassMap is taking a stand against sexual harassment in Egypt by allowing victims to text, tweet, or email reports of assaults and map them online.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters/File
Male youths try to harass women on a street in Cairo in April 2013. Egypt's National Council for Women has proposed a new law against sexual harassment with a minimum sentence of one-year in prison. HarassMap, an online tool, is also trying to curb harassment by creating maps with details of harassment incidents.

A nonprofit startup is trying to stop the pervasive harassment of women in Egypt using a revolutionary tool – the Internet.

Protests in Tahrir Square have a specific downside for women. In a country where 99.3 percent of women claim to have experienced sexual harassment, according to the United Nations, sexual assaults have become epidemic at protests. Just before Mohamed Morsi was deposed, for example, 46 women reported that they were assaulted in one day.

Sometimes the motive for sexual assault is political – the threat of rape can be enough to make women stay away from protests. But men also are emboldened to attack women because laws don’t explicitly prohibit sexual crimes.

“There is a culture of impunity of the state level,” said Bel Trew, writing for Al Jazeera.

Tech startup HarassMap is taking a stand against harassment through one of the few places free speech remains relatively uncensored – the Internet. Since 2010, victims have been able to text, tweet, or email the company to report assaults when they happen. HarassMap responds with advice on how to get help and posts the reported details to its site on a Google Map. A small team of local investigators then tries to verify the report.

Pennsylvania-born Rebecca Chaio co-founded HarassMap after a man exposed his genitals to her while she was leaving work in Cairo. Chiao recounted the experience to her female co-workers and discovered that all of them had suffered similar experiences.

Since its inception, HarassMap has grown and is fielding reports from all over Egypt, allowing users to see where sexual harassment occurs most frequently in their cities.

HarrassMap isn’t alone in its battle against sexual assault. Using the company’s data and maps, volunteers now reach out to communities in hotspot areas, encouraging locals to speak up against harassment. These grass-roots efforts are so successful that eight in 10 conversations end positively, Chiao said.

With about 44 percent of Egyptians connected to the web, and mobile use skyrocketing, the Internet seems like a perfect place to speak out where the government and official news sources have been silent. However, despite the unchecked harassment of women, HarassMap has received only 1,198 reports so far – and mostly in English, according to the Guardian. This might mean foreigners are more likely to use the system, or simply that bilingual Egyptians think reporting in English will have a greater impact.

So is the data reliable? HarassMap claims to verify reports, but how this happens isn’t entirely clear. Most reports – about 61 percent – are unverified, according to the Guardian.

If the government does decide to take action, HarassMap’s data could prove valuable. For example, the Guardian found that in 75 percent of the reports, the victim was veiled, running counter to the common stereotype that alleges that provocative Western clothing encourage sexual harassment. The figures also report demographic data and whether attackers acted alone or in groups, information that could help shape policy.

Recently, Egypt’s Constituent Assembly struck an article from the constitution that would have blocked stronger punishments for crimes against women. The government also has created a unit of female police officers, although the 10 officers can hardly make a difference in a country of 84.5 million.

While negotiations continue, HarassMap is just one example of how online reporting and mapping can right social wrongs. Kenyan startup Ushahidi pioneered the idea in 2008 to report incidences of post-election violence in Nairobi, and Chiao told the Huffington Post that more than 11,000 initiatives use similar technology to cover a host of issues. Back in Cairo, startup Zabatak maps hotspots for criminal activity through crowdsourced reports of crime and corruption.

As more people go online and see how data can improve policy, and even change cultural attitudes, online data mapping is likely to grow.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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