As thousands gathered to protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last week to demand that Egypt’s interim military rulers step down, there was another growing movement to protect women from sexual harassment and violence near the demonstrations.
Rebecca Chiao, a 35-year-old woman’s rights advocate in Egypt, has helped launch a campaign to make Tahrir Square, the center for many of the street protests, safer for both men and women.
The recent sexual assault cases of Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy and French journalist Caroline Sinz have renewed security concerns among activists of the need for more public safety for women in Egypt.
“Our team experiences harassment in an extreme way every day,” Chiao said in a recent phone interview with NBC News from Cairo.
She recounted one of her experiences getting sexually harassed in Cairo at a hair salon and not having an immediate channel to report to.
“I haven’t gotten a haircut in a year, because the last time I went, the guy who was blow-drying my hair stuck his hands down my shirt,” Chiao said.
The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in Cairo called harassment in Egypt a “dangerous social cancer” in a survey in 2008. The survey reported that 98 percent of foreign women were sexually harassed and 83 percent of Egyptian women experienced harassment throughout Egypt.
Chiao, a native of Pennsylvania, was a part of the team that initiated the sexual harassment project that produced the report.
Harnessing social media tools
She is now a part of a six-member team with a network of 500 male and female volunteers in Egypt who are asking people throughout the country to report any form of abuse they see on the streets of Cairo through a text-messaging system called Harassmap.
The reporting tool she helped create allows Egyptians to report any form of abuse anywhere anonymously in real time, and volunteers then map the abuse on a digital map to target community outreach.
Each report is mapped using the open-source crowd mapping platform Ushahidi and the text-messaging system FrontlineSMS. A red dot is shown for each report along with the text of the incident.
The sender in response receives a message that reads: “Thank you for reporting harassment. If you would like to receive legal or psychological assistance or other services, please contact the NGO Task Force on Sexual Harassment at 33464901.” Services range from counseling to how to make a police report.
“We’re trying to make this issue more apparent so that the people there can make it safe, be aware of it, and prevent it themselves,” Chiao said.
Since Harassmap’s creation last December, Chiao said the group has received about 700 reports of abuse by text, email, Facebook and from Twitter and said they've seen an increase in responses since the start of the uprising in January.
Reporters Without Borders issued a release following Friday’s assault cases urging female journalists to be careful when reporting near the area.
“It is more dangerous for a woman than a man to cover demonstrations in Tahrir Square. That is the reality and the media must face it,” Reporters without Borders, an international nonprofit that monitors press freedom, wrote.
CBS News foreign correspondent Lara Logan was also sexually assaulted near Tahrir Square the day after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Chiao said her team has received requests from people in about 20 countries to start their own version of Harassmap. While the team is helping with advice and support, Chiao says their priority is helping women in Egypt.
“We’re trying to create a behavioral change in society, so we don’t expect to see [sexual harassment] disappear overnight,” Chiao said.