Sexual harassment, and even rape, continue to be viewed by society as personal dilemmas rather than criminal acts, writes Reem Leila
Eleven-year-old Hend Mohamed became a mother after being raped by 21-year-old Mohamed Sami, a tuk-tuk driver. Hend, from Qalyubia governorate, was on her way her to a local youth club to pick up her younger brother when Sami threatened her with a knife, dragged her to a deserted area and raped her. He threatened to kill her if she told anyone what had happened. Terrified, the young girl kept silent until five months later, when she discovered she was pregnant.
Though the victim identified Sami after her family reported the incident, he was subsequently released after his arrest. The prosecutor has ordered DNA tests to establish if Sami is indeed the father of the child. The alleged rapist was re-arrested 15 July. He denies the charges. Should the DNA test show he is the father he could face a death sentence, says Fawzeya Abdel-Sattar, professor of law at Cairo University.
The victim has received psychiatric counseling provided by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, says the organisation's Secretary- General Moushira Khattab.
In another recent case of rape in the same governorate, the father of a 15-year-old girl reported that his mentally- handicapped daughter had been raped by a carpenter. The girl is now three months pregnant.
In 1999, a glaring loophole in the law, which allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victims, was finally closed when Article 291 of the penal code was repealed. The article had been in effect since 1937. Penalties for rape have also been increased from three to seven years in prison to 15 years with hard labour. If the rape victim is under 16, or the perpetrator is the guardian of the victim, the penalty can increase to life, or a death sentence is pronounced.
Abdel-Sattar says that 20,000 cases involving rape and sexual harassment are reported in Egypt every year, averaging a shocking 55.5 cases a day. The figures, however high, are likely to be the tip of the iceberg, with many victims loath to report such incidents to the police. Rape accounts for 24 per cent of cases of sexual abuse reported by women, and in the vast majority of cases the rapist is known to the victim, usually a relative or in-law.
Nehad Abu El-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), points to a recent UN report revealing that 50 per cent of young girls and 60 per cent of working women in the Middle East face sexual harassment. The ECWR has published its own report detailing incidents of harassment faced by school girls: 22 per cent of 12 to 18 year olds report that they have been the victims of sexual abuse. There is a disturbing increase in the number of sex- related crimes, says Abu El-Qomsan, and the authorities -- educational, social welfare, security and police -- have yet to devise policies to tackle the issue.