Recent years have seen an increase in harassment in Egyptian schools, but NGOs, parents and others have also been mobilising against it, writes Farah El-Akkad
Over the last few years, and specifically after the 25 January Revolution and the events that followed, violence has become a part of many Egyptians’ daily lives. According to psychologist Heba Adli of Ain Shams University in Cairo, research carried out in 2015 in a number of schools in Cairo showed that children had been one of the most affected parts of the population by the violence that has taken place in Egypt.
Perceptions of violence among children has risen from 41 per cent in 2010 to 80 per cent in 2015, raising the question of how this is affecting Egyptian schools.
The term “violence” includes verbal or physical actions with the intention of causing hurt or embarrassment and varying in degree of severity. Violence can occur between children or against children. According to Adli’s research, children between the ages of six and 11 are the most affected category, with violence ranging from bullying to sexual harassment.
Nada Al-Aasar, a sociologist at the University of Nottingham in the UK who specialises in women and children’s mental health in the Middle East, specifically Egypt, said that sexual harassment in particular was a broad issue with many aspects to be taken into consideration. Sexual harassment targeting young women aged between 19 and 30 and children under the age of 18 has always been present, but over the past four years it seems to have been getting worse, leaving many families worried about the future of their children in a country with increasing levels of such violence targeting victims from particularly the lower social classes.
In any given community, violence and political disruption can result in various mental health issues, including chronic stress and higher crime rates. When it comes to children, the impacts can be particularly damaging as violent acts such as harassment and bullying when they reach a certain point are no longer seen as out of the ordinary.
“Children grow up believing that these kinds of acts, though wrong or against the law, are ignored by the authorities and society. As a result, they can end up engaging in such acts themselves to satisfy their goals as adults because deep down they know they will not be punished,” Adli commented. Incidents of the sexual harassment or molestation of children have been reported since the 1990s, and too little attention has been paid to them, Al-Aasar said.
In her book Feminism and Women’s Rights Worldwide (1993), author Michele Paludi explains that “Egyptian parents are reticent to allow their daughters to attend school if they have a long distance to walk for fear of their daughters’ moral and physical peril,” and the research suggests that incidents of sexual harassment have indeed been on the rise. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR), an NGO, conducted a country study addressing the prevalence of sexual harassment of Egyptian women on the streets of cities throughout Egypt, discovering that 29 per cent of such cases took place in educational facilities or on the way to them, for example.
An ECWR seminar later encouraged parents to discuss such harassment with their children, though teachers said that they were at a loss as to what to tell the students about harassment or what to do when it was reported. The ECWR programme and other initiatives such as the application HarassMap are now working with the Ministry of Education in order to help deal with the phenomenon and to design curricula that can be used to teach students about it.
The increase of such incidents can lead young people to develop a hostile and unsafe image of the world, and this can result in “making them less confident about the community they live in and end up not trusting adults,” Adli added. According to case studies looked at by the ECWR, “one female student was forbidden to attend school because of the verbal harassment she suffered from men and boys as she travelled to and from school. Another father sought advice from the ECWR after his 14-year-old daughter refused to go to school because of the harassment she had experienced on the bus ride to and from school.”
According to Al-Aasar, some such incidents are “unfortunately accepted and dealt with in lower-class areas, mostly without the interference of the law or the police. For example, if a woman is verbally or physically harassed in an area such as Ard Al-Lewa or Boulaq [popular areas of Cairo], the neighbourhood is likely to know about the incident and may punish the harasser. However, members of the community may also blame the victim. Whatever the action may be, they will deal with it themselves.”
“The same thing applies in schools in such areas. If an individual is accused of harassing children, the parents will likely deal with it themselves without seeking the help of school or police authorities,” she added.
PRESS REPORTS: In 2014, a middle school teacher was referred to the disciplinary court on charges of sexually harassing one of his students, later receiving a two-year jail sentence and a fine of LE20,000. There have also been other reports of harassment, some of it reported on social media.
In April last year, reports circulated on social media that a three-year-old boy had been assaulted by a security guard at his school when reports were posted on the Internet by his mother. It was later discovered that similar acts had taken place, but that the families involved had been reluctant to report them. After the April incident was reported to the Ministry of Education and an investigation conducted, it was found that five other children had been the victims of the same security guard.
The incident was one of the first to receive widespread publicity, and in its wake many social and children’s rights activists called for action from the government. The latter responded by referring school officials to the ministry’s Legal Affairs Department and the case was referred to the prosecution authorities in Nasr City. The incident made other mothers anxious about the safety of their children, particularly because it challenged the belief that such things only occurred in popular areas and could not take place in boys’ schools.
One mother of a five-year-old boy reported that her son, also attending a school in a middle-class area, had “used to be very loud and open, but then became quiet and distant most of the time.” After weeks of trying to find out what was wrong with her son, he eventually told his mother that the bus driver at his school had abused him. While the harassment in this case was more verbal than physical, it still left the boy in fear. After the driver was fired and new rules set out, it was decided not to make the case public.
“At the end of the day, nothing will be done,” the mother said. “If we file a case, the procedure will take forever, and the chances are that we will lose. This would mean that I would have exposed my child’s good name for nothing.”
FIGHTING HARASSMENT: Egyptian law says it is the duty of the state to protect children from neglect, violence or sexual abuse, and other forms of mistreatment. “The state shall care for children and protect them from all forms of violence, abuse, mistreatment and commercial and sexual exploitation,” Article 80 of the Constitution says.
The law also states that those convicted of rape may receive the death penalty, though it also says that if the victim is a boy the penalty is seven years in prison. “I think the penalty should be the same for all forms of rape,” one mother volunteering at the ECWR said, though despite much discussion no action has been taken.
“We need to have better protection for children in Egyptian schools, including private, public and international ones. For parents, teachers and the children themselves, it is essential to see better protection – particularly since the reported cases may be just the tip of the iceberg,” one mother commented. In a TV interview in August, Ahmed Moselhi, an attorney for the Children’s Defence Network at the Egyptian Bar Association, said he had received information on 30 cases of harassment of children in schools in Cairo.
“Unfortunately, most schools try to cover up such incidents, but today social media can be used to publicise them even if there has been some exaggeration. The new media can be used to expose these occurrences and create a real impact,” a mother commented. “We know the government is busy with other issues at the moment, which is why we need the help of NGOs to deal with the issue and for the government to allow us to do so.”
Al-Aasar explains that after the 2011 Revolution, many initiatives against violence and harassment started, but these “were not as effective as we might have wished. I think the main reason was the lack of communication between different sectors – people were working on their own, when efforts should have been united.”
“We are well aware that the government has a lot on its plate at the moment, with all the political and economic issues to deal with. But the least we are asking for is to have better communication. The work of NGOs and social media alone is not enough. Too little attention is being paid to matters such as harassment and proper sex education in both public and private schools,” she said.
In addition to the ECWR efforts in cities such as Fayyoum, where a workshop was held in August on how to deal with harassment in schools, there have also been activities such as seminars, presentations including films on dealing with violence against children, and public lectures. There have been more regular meetings between school officials and parents.
With the beginning of the new school year, many new campaigns have been circulating on social media, and older initiatives such as HarassMap and Himaya (protection) have given mothers and school officials tips on how to protect children and address the subject to them.
Himaya was founded in 2013 by activist Iman Ezzat, who has now worked with thousands of children to raise awareness of harassment. Starting with only five volunteers, the group now has more than 1,000 across Cairo. In cooperation with the For a Better Life, the Bright Future Foundation (BFF), and Caritas Egypt, all charities, the campaign has offered sessions to more than 8,000 parents and 6,000 teachers in schools across Cairo, Alexandria and Mansoura.
ADDRESSING CHILDREN: For Hoda Al-Nimr, a child psychologist and researcher at Cairo University, the most important aspect of dealing with the issue is addressing the child first.
“Children need to learn to be alert when certain things happen, but at the same time they need to be addressed in a way that does not make them feel threatened,” Al-Nimr said. She explained that some mothers address their children about harassment issues in the wrong way, even making them anti-social and scared of anyone who tries to approach them.
Al-Nimr has dealt with cases in which children, never themselves experiencing harassment, were nevertheless terrified of it and had even stopped having friends. They were experiencing similar symptoms to those who had actually been subjected to acts of harassment. Therefore, parents need to talk to children starting from the age of three, but without making them feel threatened, she said.
“They need to learn that even the closest people to them are not allowed to see or touch their private parts, even if they are helping the child to get dressed or go to the toilet. There is always a limit. This will give the child a sense of independence and a sense of what is wrong and what is right. If the closest people to the child are not allowed to see these parts, when a stranger tries to do so the child will automatically know something is wrong,” Al-Nimr stressed.
She said that some children who are victims of harassment do not know what is really going on. Therefore, it is important to make them learn about what is ok and what is not. There is the importance of training children to say no in general. “The child needs to learn that it is ok to say ‘no’ when he need to. This can happen by giving children a choice in simple things. If a child is used to having an opinion, he or she will definitely have a say when danger feels near,” she said.
Children should learn about harassment from psychologists, teachers and campaigns in which both men and women of different ages are present. Addressing the issue in a fun manner through songs and drawing, and learning the difference between a “good” touch and a “bad” one, are also important.
Teaching children how to defend themselves can involve knowing when to shout out at the right time. If more parents and children were part of similar sessions on a larger scale, the issue could be controlled. “If we cannot stop the harassers, we can at least aim to protect ourselves against them,” Al-Nimr concluded.