Cairo named world's 'most dangerous' city for women

As women around the world come forward with stories of sexual harassment, a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation shows that Cairo is the world’s most dangerous megacity for women, and has become more perilous since the 2011 uprisings.

Khaled Desouki, AFP | Egyptian protesters hold up placards and shout slogans during a demonstration in Cairo against sexual harassment on February 12, 2013.

Cairo established itself as a city often unsafe for women in 2011 with a series of high-profile sexual assaults in Tahrir Square. Since then, the situation has only grown worse, according to a poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. In a survey of experts looking at how well women are protected from sexual violence, harmful cultural practices, access to healthcare and financial independence, Cairo came in last of 19 megacities those housing 10 million people or more behind Delhi, Karachi and Kinshasa.

Women in Cairo are subjected to harassment on a daily basis, experts said. Since 2011, economic conditions in the Egyptian capital and throughout the nation have deteriorated. High unemployment means fewer opportunities for women to gain financial independence, as well as a glut of frustrated, jobless men, particularly among the young. The poor economy also means that health services in the country have worsened.

"The economy has become so bad in the last two, three years that we are suffering a setback in the thinking that women's issues are not a priority," Omaima Abou-Bakr, co-founder of Women and Memory Forum, a non-government organisation trying to improve the weak position of Arab women in their culture, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Everything about the city is difficult for women. We see women struggling in all aspects. Even a simple walk on the street, and they are subjected to harassment, whether verbal or even physical," Egyptian journalist and women's rights campaigner Shahira Amin said.

“Now is not the time” became a common response to women agitating for their rights in the years after the 2011 uprisings, often by the women officially charged with protecting those rights.

To wit, Naglaa el-Adly, a member of the Egypt’s National Council for Women, an independent governmental body, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that she believes women's rights have improved, pointing to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s declaration of 2017 as the year of Egyptian women.

In addition to the overall rankings, the Thomson Reuters study classified the cities according to each of the subsections as well. Cairo was the third most dangerous megacity for women in terms of sexual violence or their ability to live without facing the risk of rape, sexual attacks or harassment. Delhi and Sao Paolo were tied for the first spot.

Attitudes about sexual harassment in Egypt are at the core of the problem. As in many places, though to a more extreme degree, women in Egypt are blamed for inviting sexual harassment for activities as benign as laughing in public. Those beliefs are inculcated in Egyptians from a young age, and are held by girls as well as boys.

In 2014, a group called Dignity Without Borders videotaped schoolboys and schoolgirls in Cairo talking about harassment. The boys explained how girls provoked harassment. The girls began by explaining that harassment made them feel bad, but by the end of the video were listing the ways in which females invited the unwelcome behavior.

There are few statistics on harassment in Egypt. A study conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights in 2008 found that 83 percent of women said they’d been sexually harassed, many of them daily, and 62 percent of men admitted to harassing women; advocates believe the percentage of women harassed is significantly higher.

The other three areas considered in the study were cultural practices, access to healthcare and economic opportunities. Cairo was deemed the worst city for women in terms of cultural practices, which specifically considered female genital mutilation, underage and forced marriages and female infanticide.

It was the second worst city in terms of economic opportunities for women, which looked at female access to education, ownership of land or other forms of property, and financial services. The only city that scored more poorly was Kinshasa.

And Cairo took the third-worst slot when it came to women’s access to healthcare, including maternal mortality and control over their reproductive health.

The numbers back those findings up.

A 2015 Egypt Health Issues Survey found that roughly nine in every 10 females suffers partial or total removal of external genitalia, despite the practice having been outlawed in 2008. And 17 percent of girls are married before the age of 18 and 2 percent before the age of 15.

World Bank figures show that female participation in the work force was at 23 percent in 2016, down from 26 percent in 1990. And according to US figures, 65 percent of Egyptian women over the age of 15 are literate, compared with 82 percent of men.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation study is not the first to identify Egypt as a place hostile to women. The country topped the list of places that are dangerous for women to visit in a survey released in August, in large part due to the verbal and sexual harassment that women routinely face there.

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