Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change

Technology and Innovation

Mapping sexual harassment in Egypt


More than 95 per cent of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment at least once, but many citizens there turn a blind eye when it happens. The HarassMap project is aiming to change that attitude at home and abroad, empowering women and changing the attitudes of men in the process.


Posted by Niki Wilson on February 22, 2017

HarassMap's map of Cairo shows the location and type of incidents that women in the city have reported to the organization, which is working to change attitudes about sexual harassment. (Photo: Courtesy of HarassMap)

In Cairo, life happens on the streets. It’s a place where people see and know the parking lot attendant, the building guard, the food seller, the textile shop owner, the jeweller. A woman walking to work might pass them every day. And, in a country where a 2013 UN Women-sponsored study found that 99.3 per cent of women respondents had experienced sexual harassment at least once, there’s a very good chance that she has been subjected to unwanted touching, cat-calling, ogling and even rape. Until recently, the reaction of the familiar faces she sees has been silence.

“Men could harass with impunity because no one talked about it,” says Noora Flinkman, head of marketing and communications at HarassMap, an organization that aims to break that silence by raising awareness and encouraging action from passive bystanders. “We want to create an environment in Egypt where sexual harassment is not tolerated.”

The organization, which was once funded by the International Development Research Centre, launched in December 2010 with two programs. The first was the project for which it is named, the HarassMap. With new technology that combined text messaging with an anonymous online reporting system, the organization was able to create a map of where sexual harassment incidents occurred.

The accumulated data from women’s sexual harassment reports was a well of evidence that could be used to justify and inform other work, says Flinkman. “The data allowed us to challenge many stereotypes. It showed that sexual harassment doesn’t just happen in bad areas or at night. It showed that it isn’t just initiated by poor people. It showed that it happens regardless of what women are wearing.”

HarassMap created this video, which explains the organization's work, to mark its fifth year of operation.

The evidence garnered from HarassMap reports informed and strengthened the community outreach program that was launched simultaneously. “Teams of volunteers went into their own neighbourhoods to encourage people to see the problem and then to take action to prevent sexual harassment on the street,” says Flinkman. Volunteers used information from specific reports to encourage people on the streets to feel compassion for the victims of harassment and to be more inclined to take action if something similar happens in their presence.

Volunteer-based programs and their positive outcomes continue to grow. Young women that volunteer for HarassMap become empowered as they work toward a world where they don’t have to be in constant fear of unwanted attention, says Flinkman. Many become strong public speakers and advocates, working on policy and laying the groundwork for real change.

The community outreach program has also been successful in attracting men, who make up about 50 per cent of those enrolled. Flinkman sees an evolution in their involvement as well.

“Some of the men in the program come because they feel like they want to protect women who can’t protect themselves,” she says. “When they go through the program, they see that it’s not about women being weak — it’s a social and behavioural problem that is actually about men. Then their whole perception changes. They stop talking about protecting their sisters and start talking about working together with other human beings on this issue.”

HarassMap has facilitated some landmark changes. It worked with Cairo University, the country’s biggest public university, to implement a sexual harassment policy in 2014 — the first of its kind in Egypt. There is one anti-harassment unit for the entire university that regularly recruits and trains volunteers, and representatives of that unit are available in every faculty. During the recent United Nations-led 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, these volunteers arranged activities against sexual harassment all around campus.

“This was unheard of two years ago,” says Flinkman, adding that the university president, Gaber Nassar, walked in the organized march against sexual harassment.

HarassMap has also worked with the technology company Uber to develop a sexual harassment component for their driver training. It teaches new drivers what sexual harassment is, and the legal consequences.

Having learned of its success, organizations in other countries have asked HarassMap for mentorship in starting their own programs. For example, Women Under Seige has been documenting sexualized violence in Syria, while Akshara/HarassMap India is working against sexual harassment in India.

“We’re trying to support other groups that want to do something similar,” says Flinkman. It appears to be working. While sexual harassment exists across the globe, so do the people determined to stop it.

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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.

The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.