‘Harassment map’ helps Egyptian women stand up for their rights

Updated 7:22 AM EST, Fri December 21, 2012

Story highlights

HarassMap aims to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt

Women use its SMS-based system to to report incidents anonymously

Community outreach teams visit the sexual harassment hotspots to raise awareness

The group also uses mobile phones to provide victims with details of how to access services

CNN —  

From fighting cancer and sparking revolutions to digitally transferring cash and bringing people together, mobile phones are increasingly being used in pioneering ways across Africa, helping to save lives and transform the continent.

And the omnipresent devices are also on the front line in the fight against sexual harassment. In Egypt, where verbal harassment, groping, stalking and indecent exposure are a common problem for women, an innovative tool has emerged to empower victims.

Called HarassMap, the volunteer-based initiative is aiming to stop the social acceptability of sexual harassment in the North African country. It uses online and offline technology to invite women to speak out and also mobilize communities to stand up to harassers.

How it works

HarassMap uses a simple SMS-based system to enable victims and witnesses to anonymously report sexual harassment incidents as soon as they happen. “You dial 6069 and then you type what happened and where,” explains Rebecca Chiao, who co-founded HarassMap at the end of 2010. “Then you send and then in a minute or so you should get an auto-response.”

Read: Innovation to save lives in Africa

The group then verifies the incoming reports and places them on a Google map of Egypt, creating a web-based documentation of the extent of the problem. When sexual harassment hotspots are identified, HarrassMap volunteers visit these areas as part of a community outreach program aimed at raising awareness and ending tolerance of these kinds of incidents.

“We are trying to change the social attitude and make it completely unacceptable,” says Chiao, an American who moved to Egypt in 2004 to work for an NGO.

She adds: “We have teams of volunteers that go out once per month in their own neighborhoods and talk to their own neighbors in groups.

“They ask people who have a presence in the street – shop owners, police, the guys that park the car, the doormen, the people who are hanging out in the street all the time – and ask them to be watchful guardians of their neighborhoods.

“They ask them to watch out for sexual harassment and not ignore it and to speak against the harassers when they see it happen.”

Chiao says the community outreach program has already had a big impact. “About eight out of every 10 people they talk to in the street agree by the end of the conversation,” she explains. “At the beginning everyone disagrees but by the time the conversation is over most people are not just agreeing but they are enthusiastic and want to take action.”

’Do you like sex with me?’

On the HarrassMap website, victims’ reports give a disturbing insight into sexual harassment on the s