A confused step in the right direction: Commentary on the National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women

Press Release

23 June 2015

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights welcomes the release of the National Strategy to Combat Violence against women, a demand long voiced by numerous rights and feminist organizations and grassroots initiatives against all forms of sexual violence and exploitation. In this paper, the EIPR offers a reading of the national strategy and its major themes, and the approach the strategy employs in defining violence, as well as the most significant gains in the strategy and points ignored by the authors of the document.

While the EIPR welcomes a document of this significance, it nevertheless believes that the definitions it adopts to describe the phenomenon are not adequate to allow an apprehension of the genuine scope of the issue and the effective utilization of available resources. Generally speaking, a rights-based language is often missing in the definition of the forms of violence facing women, particularly sexual violence. At times, the document restricts itself to problematic definitions found in the Egyptian Penal Code, which use a morally charged language and do not offer adequate protection for potential victims of violence. Similarly, the categorization of forms of sexual violence—rampant in Egypt—are similarly limited and narrowly construed, failing to mention collective sexual assaults and sexual violence by the security apparatus, the most dangerous and frequent types of sexual violence facing Egyptian women. This problematic conceptual framing is reflected in the ambiguity and vagueness of the legislative or practical steps proposed, whether in the health, educational, or security field. In this brief comment, the EIPR draws attention to this ambiguity and offers some specific recommendations to develop the strategy in the future and ensure its implementation on the ground.

Major features of the strategy

The strategy is a five-year plan whose methodology is based on a review of the literature, the outcome of workshops, and a survey in the governorates to understand the current situation and identify the challenges related to violence against women. It employs a SWOT analysis (analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) conducted by each party to the strategy. The strategy relies on 12 protocols signed between the National Council for Women and numerous ministries, including the Interior, Justice, Health, Youth, Education, Tourism, and Endowments, as well as with the Orthodox Church, several specialized national councils, among them the National Council for Human Rights and the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and a number of civil society organizations and feminist initiatives.

The strategy begins by setting out a vision, a message, and objectives, which are divided into four main themes: prevention, which deals with education, awareness-raising, and a review of laws; protection, which concerns the implementation of laws, raising awareness of them, and encouraging women to report; interventions related to psychological and health services, women’s shelters, and referral systems; and prosecution and litigation. This is followed by a summary of the executive plans and performance indicators. In addition, the strategy includes six appendices: a review of the literature, a typology of violence against women and girls, the national and international legal framework, national efforts by governmental and non-governmental bodies, an analysis of the internal climate of the relevant bodies, and the executive action plans.

The strategy includes several executive plans that adopt a perspective different from the prevailing approach in penal policies and protective measures. For example, instead of simply promoting fines or liberty-depriving penalties, there is a tendency to adopt a rehabilitative approach for sexual harassers and sexual violence offenders, as well as attention to efforts to change ideas about women’s rights. According to the strategy, the Ministry of Justice will prepare a procedural and training manual for members of the Public Prosecution, law-enforcement bodies, and the forensic medical authority to deal with cases of violence. It will also prepare a guide for Ministry of Interior staff in the field of violence against women. The Ministry of Solidarity will announce a hotline for reporting cases and will increase shelters for women victims of violence, although only slightly and in no way adequate to the numbers of victims of violence in Egypt.

When it comes to research, the strategy states that various studies about the causes of violence against women, covering all aspects of the issue, will be prepared by several bodies and ministries, to examine the cost of violence, its manifestations, and its scope. In general, the strategy seeks to improve information-collection systems in ministries on the subject of violence, and a medical protocol on dealing with victims of violence has in fact been issued. Universities intend to establish girls’ safety units on campuses, while the Ministry of Justice will form rapid response units to aid victims (these units are comprised of a police officer, a forensic physician, and a psychologist). On the level of legislation, the strategy aims to see through the issuance of a comprehensive law to combat violence against women. The National Council for Human Rights will review academic curricula to make their language more rights-oriented and consistent with the principle of equality, and the National Council for Women will establish an observatory to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the strategy’s activities.

The EIPR recommends that this observatory be accessible to the public, to allow citizens to monitor the implementation of the strategy and the compliance of various bodies with the commitments it entails.

Points of vagueness and ambiguity

Although the authors of the strategy made efforts to comply with international standards, this compliance is limited and at times selective, coming at the expense of the local context. This is best demonstrated in the narrow, selective definition of violence it employs and the failure to mention the two most important manifestations of sexual violence in Egypt: collective sexual assaults and the role of the security apparatus as a perpetrator of sexual violence.

The definition of violence in the strategy is largely comprehensive and adequate. Social violence is defined to include the infringement of the principle of equal opportunity, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking. Domestic violence includes coerced marriage, the denial of or discrimination in inheritance, and female circumcision. But the definition and typology of violence to which women in Egypt are subject is limited and often inconsistent. The strategy classifies the types of violence against women in two places, first in the outset of the strategy and later in the second appendix, titled “Types of Violence against Women and Girls.” In both instances, the language used is confused and unspecific, with the terminology veering from rights-based terms found in international conventions and treaties and the language used in the Egyptian Penal Code. For example, the strategy cites “a husband compelling his wife to engage in sex against her wishes,” or what is known as marital rape, among the types of violence, although Egyptian law does not criminalize marital rape and there is widespread objection among legalists to the inclusion of marital rape as a form of sexual violence. The strategy cites two definitions of sexual harassment: the definition recently introduced to the Penal Code and the definition found in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). But when discussing sexual assault, for example, the strategy first offers one definition followed by a definition of hatk ‘ird (literally, debasing or defiling the honor of another) or what is known as “moral assault”. This term is used in Egyptian law to describe sexual assault, but it is problematic insofar as it links assault with women’s honor rather than their physical safety. It is thus a moralistic term with no concrete signification. In describing rape, the authors of the strategy use only the term as defined in Egyptian law, which is “having sexual intercourse with a female against her will,” disregarding the definition of the World Health Organizations, which defines rape as “physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration of the vulva or anus with a penis, other body parts or object.”1 The difference between the two is quite significant. While Egyptian law offers protection to women only and defines rape strictly as vaginal penetration, the WHO definition extends protection to men and women equally and broadly defines rape to include anal rape or penetration with an object, all of which Egyptian law classifies under the ambiguous term of hatk ‘ird rather than rape.

More significant than the lack of uniform terminology to describe the manifestations of sexual violence is the poor framing of this vital issue from a rights-based perspective. The appendix on the national and international legal framework refers only to the right of equality and non-discrimination, but a rights-based approach to violence against women brings in numerous other rights, such as the right to bodily integrity, freedom from violence and degrading treatment, and the right to security, life, and health. This weak rights-based language is observable in numerous places, where it is matched by an excessive interest in the role of religious discourse. Despite the importance of religious discourse and the protocols of cooperation with the Ministry of Endowments and the Orthodox Church, this narrow approach to the issue of violence will always make the battle for women’s rights prisoner to the rhetoric of authenticity while also reducing the responsibility of the state to meet its obligations to protect the rights of female citizens. It also reinforces the idea that women are first and foremost subjects of the religion to which they belong.

There are several other problems that continue to distort state officials’ view of sexual violence, sometimes to the point of denying its existence. A word from the prime minister in the foreword to the strategy attributes the increase in violence against women to “economic, social, and political conditions and the rapid changes that society has undergone in the recent period.” In other parts of the strategy, sexual violence is described as “a phenomenon alien to our society and our culture,” although Egypt has suffered from an epidemic of sexual violence against women for more than a decade. In addition, the objectives of the strategy include improving Egypt’s international image, or “elevating the status of the nation and erasing the negative image that has spread international and locally of violence against women.” Such words call into question the degree to which the state has truly understood the crisis of profound violence in Egypt. For too long, women in Egypt have suffered from successive post-independence governments concerned about their issues as a means to improve their own image in the international community, without this being translated into any tangible changes in women’s lives. Quite simply, the inordinate concern with Egypt’s global image at the expense of the state’s obligation to improve citizens’ lives and protect them from violations was and remains standard practice for the successive authoritarian governments that have ruled this country.

In various sections, the strategy advocates research by ministries to identify the causes of sexual violence, an extremely important goal in light of state agencies’ admission of a severe lack of data and research on violence. Nevertheless, the strategy disregards numerous statistics and studies on the scope of the phenomenon and its spread in Egypt, issued by international and local bodies, governmental and civic, with which the Egyptian government cooperates. The review of literature focuses heavily on similar strategies in other Arab states, such as Algeria, Palestine, Morocco, and Iraq, as well as specific studies, such as that released by the National Council for Women in 2009, in its section on the scope of violence against women. But it ignores important studies, such as the UN survey in Egypt that found that 99.3 percent of women in Egypt had been subjected to sexual harassment, or “Clouds in Egypt’s Skies,” a study conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights. This omission can only be explained as an attempt to minimize the scope of violence against women, disregard the latest statistics, or disregard the research efforts of civil society and international organizations.

Regarding the scope of violence in Egypt that the strategy seeks to confront, any casual observer of incidents of violence against women in Egypt knows that the collective sexual assaults endured by women and girls in public celebrations, demonstrations, and large assemblies are the most severe violence against women in Egypt over the last decade. During the demonstrations in Tahrir Square during the week of June 28 to July 7, 2013, there were 186 such cases reported. In fact, the severity of these assaults was a prime motivator spurring the state to adopt this cause, especially after President Sisi visited a survivor of a sexual assault that occurred during his inauguration celebrations. The other form of violence the strategy failed to address is sexual violence perpetrated by security forces against women, whether detainees or non-detainees, in and outside police stations and detention facilities. This is especially crucial in light of reports from local and international rights bodies warning of the increased frequency of violence practiced by the security apparatus against women, men, and children. The Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture documented 16 cases of sexual assault and 8 cases of sexual harassment committed by police personnel against citizens from June 8, 2014 to June 7, 2015. An affirmation of the involvement of security personnel in incidents of sexual violence would indicate a serious, realistic engagement with the issue of violence against women. This is not to minimize the efforts mentioned by the strategy, such as the Ministry of Interior’s establishment of sections to combat violence against women in security directorates and a mechanism at the ministry for the receipt of women’s complaints. But denying that police personnel sexually assault both political and non-political female prisoners, that they are involved in the daily acts of sexual harassment in the streets, and that they use sexual torture as a tool in detention facilities means that the ministry’s efforts are merely formal procedures that do not seek to change the mindset of police officers and security personnel on women’s rights. This disregard extends to the failure to list police and security personnel as potential perpetrators of sexual violence, identified by the strategy as relatives, employers, strangers, and others.

This lack of consideration for the local context is illustrated not only in the disregard of police violence and collective sexual assaults, but also in the analysis of the objective environment and conditions. Among the strengths cited by the strategy is the experience of women’s organizations and various coalitions, alliances, and initiatives against violence, while no mention is made of laws that limit the right to association or the difficulties facing some social initiatives combating collective sexual violence that continued to operate despite the general decline in protest actions. The strategy also does not consider obstacles like the need to obtain security approvals or the security establishment’s hostile attitude toward movements and initiatives working to raise awareness of or combat street harassment.

The strategy also demonstrates a problematic tendency to devise ad-hoc solutions for chronic problems. Despite its emphasis on laws and policies to combat violence against women, a comprehensive law to combat violence, and equal opportunity units in ministries, there are no proposals, for example, for effective policies to combat harassment in workplaces like hospitals, schools, and businesses, a phenomenon that requires effective, swift intervention to protect women from exploitation by their superiors or work colleagues. The strategy also endorses the starkly punitive philosophy adopted by the state for years, with the exception of the latest legislative amendment. In 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces stiffened penalties for sexual crimes, raising the sentence for rape from life with labor to death or life imprisonment. This type of legal reform has long been opposed by activists and civil society, which believe not only that the punishment should fit the crime, but also recognize the need for actual punishment, which judges may be hesitant to hand down to defendants if penalties are too severe.

Such shortsightedness is evident not only in the proposed policies and laws, but also more starkly in the section on education. Despite its crucial importance, the way this issue is addressed is flawed, reproducing stereotypes about women and men. The strategy proposes school training for girls on protection from bodily harm and training for boys on respect for women’s rights and the avoidance of violence, while all students should be targeted for training on how to protect their bodies from violence. Although much space is dedicated to the executive activity plan for the Ministry of Education—for example, student seminars, parent awareness sessions, preparation programs for teachers and social workers, and studies on harassment—no mention is made of addressing violence against women through comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), which is the key not only to treating issues of violence, but also a broad spectrum of gender issues. The government’s disregard of comprehensive sexuality education programs, for example, continues despite clear recommendations from the CEDAW Committee, made in its concluding observations to Egypt in the 45th session. The committee recommended “that sex education be widely promoted and targeted at adolescent girls and boys.”2

The final problem with the strategy is poor performance indicators, especially the quantitative indicators for objectives such as increasing reporting of violence by women or the provision of legal consultation or aid.

Conclusion and recommendations

The EIPR reiterates its appreciation for the adoption of a national strategy to combat violence against women in principle, but notes that addressing a phenomenon this complex and widespread requires a complete shift in the way violence against women is viewed. It must start with the adoption of a comprehensive definition of the phenomenon, which must be divorced from vague moralistic perspectives, and include an honest assessment of the scope of the phenomenon and the identification of the most urgent sources of threat to women’s bodily integrity and related rights. As a first step toward this shift, the EIPR advocates:

-Tuning the discourse and the terminology used to describe types of violence against women, starting by the adoption of a more comprehensive definition of rape and sexual assault that that protects both sexes and transcends the vague crime of hatk ‘ird.

-Opening a transparent investigation into violations by various security personnel against women and the use of sexual violence as a means to punish, humiliate, intimidate, or extract confessions from arrested persons or prisoners.

-Recognizing the extent of collective sexual violence against women in Egypt in the past years and categorizing collective sexual assaults as the most severe form of violence; this requires efforts related to the allocation of resources to address the phenomenon, and raising awareness and training health and security personnel in how to deal with and address its effects.

-Incorporating comprehensive sexuality education for both sexes in schools and other social institutions, as an entryway to reduce violence against women at an early stage.

-Develop more precise, accurate quantitative and qualitative indicators to measure performance.

-Involve more civil society organizations in the implementation, follow-up, and assessment of the strategy.