LAGRANGE, Ohio — On March 8, 2021, the day that marks International Women’s Day, Amnesty International reported that gender-based violence is on the rise across the region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) during COVID-19. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines “gender-based violence as harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender.” Even though a social media campaign on sexual harassment and gender-based violence in Egypt “led to the arrest of several men” in August 2020, survivors and witnesses still “face arrest and prosecution” despite new legislation granting “anonymity to survivors of sexual assault.” Despite these struggles, it is still important to recognize Egypt’s gains in overcoming gender inequality and advancing women’s rights. Gender-based violence and poverty in Egypt are inextricably linked, therefore, one cannot truly eradicate poverty without putting gender equality at the forefront of poverty reduction strategies.
Forms of Gender-Based Violence in Egypt
According to the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, gender-based violence in Egypt takes several forms: “violence committed by institutions of the state, domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and the structural violence that deprives women of equal participation and a chance to change the conditions that perpetuate the other forms of violence.”
Violence also manifests in Egypt in the forms of child marriage and intimate partner violence. Child marriage refers to nonconsensual unions occurring before the age of 18, and in Egypt, 17% of girls between the ages of 20-24 married before 18, according to a 2018 U.N. Women report.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines intimate partner violence as “abuse or aggression that occurs in a romantic relationship.” U.N. Women reported in 2018 that 26% of Egyptian women ages 15-49 endured intimate partner violence “at least once in their lifetime.”
A staggering 87% of Egyptian females ages 15-49 have experienced the removal of genitalia for non-medical reasons, according to 2017 data. However, this rate marks progress from the 2005 rate of 96%. The improvements likely link to Egypt’s ban of FGM in 2007. In 2016, Egypt strengthened this ban by deeming FGM a criminal offense to perform or request. Then, in 2021, Egypt increased the severity of punishment to “prison terms of between five and 20 years” while barring medical professionals carrying out the procedure from medical practice for up to five years. In addition, the “person requesting FGM will also face imprisonment.”
Why is gender-based violence so prevalent in Egypt? The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights documents that cultural norms consider it acceptable for males to subject females to acts of violence as the male deems necessary. In addition, the media’s portrayal of violence as acceptable contributes to the problem. Also, some Egyptian women have a rational fear of engaging with the legal and security systems of the country due to a history of failing to protect women who report abuse and violations.
Despite the realities of gender-based violence, the Egyptian government has made progress in ensuring women’s safety. In 2014, the government passed a law criminalizing sexual harassment “for the first time in modern Egyptian history.” The law sentences perpetrators to up to five years of imprisonment and imposes a fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (more than $3,000).
Gender-Based Violence and Poverty in Egypt
There are several links between poverty and gender-based violence in Egypt. When women endure abuse, they are more likely to stay absent from work, resulting in income losses. The health care system also faces increased costs due to injuries resulting from the abuse and the nation faces “increased burdens on law enforcement structures.”
Moreover, the Population Reference Bureau has stated that impoverished Egyptian women belonging to the lowest quintile of wealth with lower levels of education “are more than twice as likely” to endure spousal violence in comparison to Egyptian women in the highest quintile, who tend to have more education. Also, previously married Egyptian women are more likely to experience spousal abuse in future marriages due to the stigma surrounding female divorcees.
Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women
While gender-based violence and poverty in Egypt continue, nonprofits exist to advance women’s rights and uplift Egyptian women.
The Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) works personally and societally to help impoverished Egyptian women, especially female heads of households. Founded in 1987 and re-registered in 2002, ADEW practices feminist micro-lending whereby “credit groups of five women guarantee each other’s loans.” This practice enables women to start their own businesses and escape poverty without male guarantors.
In addition, the organization runs health and literacy programs. The health program gives women cost-free health checkups and free medications while the literacy program teaches women how to read using the Egyptian literacy syllabus. Thus far, the health program has helped more than 50,000 Egyptian women. Founded in 1996, the literacy program has reached 20,000 women. These programs help women escape poverty by increasing their employability through literacy skills.
The New Woman Foundation
Founded in 1984, the New Woman Foundation (NWF) exists to combat gender-based violence and poverty in Egypt by supporting the development of gender equality laws and policies, engaging “groups of women in civil society to widen the scope of their participation in the public space” and developing youth leadership “to defend and support women’s rights from a feminist perspective.”
In 2021, the NWF developed a campaign to support violence against women (VAW) protection strategies through discussion and recommendations. The discussion covered several topics such as “legislative and judicial protection” and “VAW elimination services” as well as barriers victims face within referral systems when seeking refuge in safe houses. The campaign also discussed encouraging MENA nations to ratify ILO’s Convention 190C in relation to combating harassment in the workplace.
While there remain barriers to combating gender-based violence in Egypt, the country has made significant progress over the years. With an ongoing commitment to upholding the rights of all people, especially vulnerable groups, advancements in Egypt can continue on an upward trajectory.
– Ozichukwu Ojukwu