Human rights groups have condemned the government’s failure to address the “epidemic” of continuing sexual violence against women taking part in demonstrations in Tahrir Square and surrounding areas. “The rampant sexual attacks during the Tahrir Square protests highlight the failure of the government and all political parties to face up to the violence that women in Egypt experience on a daily basis in public spaces,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch in a statement issued on Wednesday. “These are serious crimes that are holding women back from participating fully in the public life of Egypt at a critical point in the country’s development,” the statement read.
On 30 June alone Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH), a group of volunteers who run a hotline for sexual assault victims, patrol demonstrations and attempt to rescue women from attacks, reported 46 incidents of mob sexual assaults on women in Tahrir Square. The group was formed in the wake of sexual violence at demonstrations in January of this year. “The seriousness of the assaults ranged from mob sexual harassment and assault to raping female protesters using knives and sharp object,” OpAntiSH said in a press release that they also tweeted on their Twitter account. The responsibility, they say, is shared also by those who organize and call for protests, without taking steps to secure them.
A total of ninety-one women have been attacked in the four days since protests began on June 30, Egyptian anti-sexual harassment groups say.
Pro-Mohamed Morsi media and demonstrators have attempted to discredit the anti-Morsi protests taking place in Tahrir Square by pointing to the attacks, and the absence of similar incidents at their own protests. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault calls this, “a further violation of these women,” saying it “cannot be believed that they have developed a sudden concern for women’s physical safety or their full right to protest, when their position on issues of equality and women`s rights is well known.”
Along with other rights groups, they are critical of the Morsi administration’s response to the problem, pointing to how it “has placed responsibility for the assaults on the women who were attacked.” “The Egyptian government’s response has typically been to downplay the extent of the problem or to seek to address it through legislative reform alone,” Human Rights Watch said. “What is needed are concerted efforts to improve law enforcement’s practice in protecting victims and effectively investigating and prosecuting the attackers, as well as a comprehensive national strategy on the part of the government.”
Amnesty International researcher Diana Eltahawy writing in a blog published on the rights group’s website notes that statements and promises of action by government officials that are not followed up on “seem to be nothing more than an attempt to deflect criticism, including from the international community.” Stork describes the government’s “piecemeal and ad hoc” responses as “grossly inadequate to prevent sexual violence.” Eltahawy adds that the government “has failed to address the deep-seated discriminatory discourse and attitudes reverberating across society that blames women for the attacks.” In February 2013, Eltahawy notes, Shura Council members said that women had brought the attacks on themselves by attending the protests.
The OpAntiSH press release puts sexual violence in a social and political context, suggesting that the Morsi administration “continues in the tradition of the Mubarak regime and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to use sexual violence as a means to torture and terrify men and women in prisons and police stations.”
[This article originally appeared on Mada Masr]