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Mobile phones give harassment victims a voice in Egypt

An interview with Rebecca Chiao, co-founder of HarassMap
By Florence Scialom, FrontlineSMS Community Support Coordinator

Harassment is disempowering. Victims of harassment often feel they have had their voice taken away from them. One of the main aims of HarassMap – a recently founded organisation which uses FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to map harassment on the streets of Egypt – is to provide victims with a way to be heard. “Sometimes you can shout and scream at someone for harassing you in the street, and it just makes their behaviour worse,” Rebecca Chiao, founder of HarassMap, tells me. I recently met with Rebecca at FrontlineSMS’s London office, where we discussed the formation of HarassMap and the involvement of FrontlineSMS in their work.

HarassMap community workshop. Image courtesy of HarassMap

Having lived in Egypt for 7 years, working specifically on issues of gender discrimination, Rebecca is able to speak from experience about the frequency of harassment in Egypt, and attitudes towards it. “There is a social acceptability surrounding harassment on the streets; people will often stand by and let it happen” she says. Feeling the need to challenge this kind of tolerance for intimidation on the streets of Egypt motivated Rebecca and a like-minded group of 3 Egyptian friends to start HarassMap, with the help and support of tech partner, NiJeL.

Since launching in late 2010, HarassMap have used FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to map the trouble spots on Egypt’s streets. Victims of harassment can send an SMS, showing their location, which is captured in FrontlineSMS and fed in to an online map via Ushahidi. HarassMap then organises groups of volunteers to go to the areas in which the most incidences have been reported and raise awareness about the problem on the streets. Volunteers hand out flyers with HarassMap’s SMS number, so people know they can contact someone if they feel threatened. In addition, HarassMap volunteers have one to one conversations with people in the neighbourhood, and run community based events, with the purpose of openly discussing the issue of intimidating behaviour in the area. The HarassMap team thus directly question the acceptance of harassment, and encourage neighborhoods to take more responsibility for activity on their own streets.

Click here to listen to a short audio interview with Rebecca

Why mobile?

The group behind HarassMap identified the need for people in Egypt to have a way to not just speak up, but feel heard when they get victimised on the streets. A mobile phone provides a very personal, accessible form of communication. “Everyone in Egypt has access to a mobile,” Rebecca explains, “even in poorer areas of the country most people have access to a mobile phone via street kiosks and by sharing phones.” Furthermore, Rebecca does not accept that most women do not have access to a handset, stating that “yes, some statistics show most mobile contracts are registered in a man’s name. However, that is often just for convenience because men are more likely to have paperwork needed to get a mobile contract; my phone for example, is registered in the name of a male friend” she tells me.

The fact is using text messaging as a form of communication makes reporting an incident to HarassMap an instantaneous option for a wide audience. Having the immediacy of being able to report an incident helps prevent a feeling of powerlessness. “The law can often seem a distant and inaccessible form of support when you get harassed; having a reporting system in place provides people with the agency to respond to the way they’ve been treated” Rebecca explains. In addition to mapping and recording reports the HarassMap team send back an automated SMS response through FrontlineSMS, with information on accessing support; ranging from accessible free legal advice to psychological help services.

What effect have recent political events had on HarassMap?

The political situation in the region of the Middle East and North Africa remains extremely tense, and the recent revolution in Egypt inevitably had an effect on HarassMap’s work. “At first, with the internet, phone lines, and power down, the revolution was a massive hindrance to our operations” Rebecca explains. “But the enthusiasm the revolution produced motivated more people to engage in taking care and ownership over their streets, and treating each other with respect, so once Egypt was back online interest in HarassMap surged.”

Women played a prominent role in the political events, and there was reportedly a sense of openness and respect on Egypt’s streets during the celebrations around the departure of Hosni Mubarak. Yet the streets of Egypt got in to the press for all the wrong reasons when American CBS journalist Lara Logan got assaulted in Cairo. In some ways this incident could be seen to underline the need for a service such as HarassMap all the more. “What happened to Lara Logan really did feel like the first slap in the face of a new Egypt; the people who contacted us were really shocked and saddened by the fact that this could happen,” Rebecca states, “and it has certainly motivated more people to become involved in helping HarassMap strengthen our service.” Extreme incidences of assault on Egypt’s street, such as what happened to Lara Logan, are relatively rare compared to verbal harassment and are thus a shocking occurrence; it is services such as HarassMap which can help to keep it that way.

What’s does the future hold for HarassMap?

It isn’t just Egypt that is in need of a service such as HarassMap; Rebecca and the team have received requests for the service to be replicated in over 15 countries, including Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan, South Africa and many more. At present HarassMap is fully run by dedicated volunteers, so the next step is to fundraise in order to then get a full time member of staff in post to manage the massive demand they are receiving for their service.

HarassMap is using technology to both challenge the idea that harassment is acceptable, and to provide information on for victims of harassment to reach the services they need. Tools such as FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi are enabling the HarassMap team to tackle both casual attitudes towards the acceptability of harassment, and the detrimental impact harassment has on victims. This is an example using appropriate technology in a way that strengthens other local structures and civil society organisations. In this way HarassMap really is an amazing organisation, which has potential to be replicated in many other contexts.

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8 Responses to “Mobile phones give harassment victims a voice in Egypt”

  1. James Schneider 9 March 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    Excellent organization. We profiled them a couple of months back. http://thinkafricapress.com/article/harassmap

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