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Women and the police in Egypt: A new era?

17 June 2015 - Lola Aliaga, Leonie Northedge

On paper, the Egyptian government is making positive moves to address violence against women, yet adopting strategies which put women’s needs and concerns at the centre of policing will be the key to real change say Lola Aliaga and Leonie Northedge.

In April 2015, the Egyptian government announced its National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women, which will include setting up specialised police units and giving training to all police officers on addressing violence against women. An increase in patrols for responding to emergency calls is planned, and more women doctors will be recruited. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime will be supporting the implementation of the strategy across several ministries.

A new Saferworld report, Violence Against Women in Egypt: Prospects for improving police response, examines the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI) efforts to address violence against women since 2013 and makes recommendations to the Egyptian government and international donors for achieving the long-term institutional transformation that is needed to improve the police force’s response to this violence. The Egyptian government must also undertake reforms to change the force’s purpose and mandate, and put in place oversight and accountability mechanisms.

Violence against women is extremely widespread in Egypt, with studies indicating that a very high proportion of women and girls are affected by domestic violence, sexual harassment or other forms of violence during their lifetime. Recently, the shocking phenomenon of mob sexual assaults on women during protests or Eid holidays (when city streets are crowded) has been increasingly documented by the media. Public concern and campaigning by women’s groups on inadequate police response to such high profile instances of violence led to the setting up in 2013 of a small dedicated violence against women unit in the MOI.

While Egyptian civil society groups working to combat violence against women welcomed the establishment of the unit, activists who spoke to Saferworld highlighted the lack of training and relevant experience of the ten officers who were first assigned to the unit. Nihal Saad Zaghloul of the Imprint Movement, a group that does volunteer patrols during the Eid holidays, told Saferworld that “[The unit officers] don’t have the same experience on the field, as we do, because they’re mostly doing desk jobs.” Survivors Saferworld spoke to said that they did not find the unit’s services useful, or did not trust the police enough to use its services.

Civil society groups have also questioned whether the police’s response to violence against women can be tackled in isolation from the need for broader police reform. Dalia Abdel Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said, “In the past period, it wasn’t really relevant to cooperate with the police, especially if there isn’t a political will to restructure the MOI. There are many testimonies of the police as perpetrators of sexual violence.”

Police abuses were one of the main drivers of popular mobilisation in the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and sexual violence crimes against women by members of the security services have been documented by rights groups over the past decades. More concerning, a report released this month by the International Federation for Human Rights raises the alarm about ongoing sexual violations by state actors since 2013, and a failure to prosecute or otherwise hold to account the perpetrators.

While it is to be hoped that the new National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women provides an ambitious vision for a better government-led response, it must be accompanied by acknowledgement of abuses of this type committed by state security actors. Broader reforms are necessary to ensure that the police’s mandate is focused on the protection of society, upholding human rights and ensuring the rule of law is observed.

In order to build trust, the Egyptian government will need to adopt strategies which put women’s needs and concerns at the centre of policing (and the criminal justice system more broadly). Working with civil society groups – and providing a legal framework which facilitates the work of civil society rather than restricting it – will be an important way to do this.

Leonie Northedge is acting MENA Programme Manager; Lola Aliaga is Programme officer for MENA.

Read the report Violence against women in Egypt: Prospects for improving police response

Find out more about our work in Egypt.

Read "It’s Dangerous to be the First": Security barriers to women’s public participation in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

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In order to build trust, the Egyptian government will need to adopt strategies which put women’s needs and concerns at the centre of policing

Leonie Northedge, Lola Aliaga