HarassMap was launched in December 2010 by a founding group of four women together with tech partners, advisers, and volunteers. We were all overwhelmed by the sexual harassment that we, and almost everyone we knew, were exposed to on a daily basis. We felt that we could not continue to stand by and quietly tolerate the damaging effect sexual harassment was having on our daily lives, choices, and feelings of safety and pride in this country.
Most of us had been working on the issue of sexual harassment for several years at that point. One of us had started a program against sexual harassment in 2005 while working at a women’s rights organization in Cairo and realizing how badly volunteers were being harassed while commuting to and from the office. Sexual harassment was a very sensitive and silenced issue at the time but by starting to talk to others about it, we and the volunteers realized that this was not an isolated issue, but a problem that was affecting everyone.
We had learned from past experience how effective a public-based approach was in producing progress on the issue. It had already generated mass public dialogue, pushed the National Council for Women and several members of parliament to draft new laws, inspired a first successful court case, and encouraged women’s NGOs who had previously been reluctant to take on this issue, to form an 18 member NGO Task Force on Sexual Harassment.
Despite this, most NGOs prior to HarassMap lost interest in engaging the public and instead started to focus on advocacy for a new law, and the progress that had been made to break the silence and start addressing the issue slowed down to almost a standstill in 2008 and 2009.
In 2009 a volunteer introduced our co-founders to Frontline SMS and Ushahidi, which is free software that can be linked together to make an anonymous reporting and mapping system that can be used online and through SMS. Since about 97% of Egyptians then – half of whom are women – owned a mobile phone, this technology seemed like an opportunity to re-engage the public in this issue. It took a year to develop our model and we analyzed the situation and crafted an approach to target the areas we felt were not being addressed by the advocacy focused NGO programs that were already active at the time.
We wanted to be sure that HarassMap would never be “just a map” and it was important to us that it would have a strong community-based component that could make a strong impact on the ground. From our experience working in the issue, we saw that one of the main challenges to tackle had to be passive bystanding. In Egypt, there are always people in the street – shopkeepers, doormen, police, and people parking cars and drinking tea and socializing. In the past, these were the people who would protect the neighborhood and anyone caught harassing a woman would be chased down and his head shaved as a mark of shame. Everyone would come to help and no one blamed the harassed person. These days, bystanders often pretend they don’t see or they sympathize with the harasser and tell the harassed that she/he is to blame, or in the worst cases, they join in the harassment.
In this environment, it was our opinion that advocacy for a new law on sexual harassment could not stand alone in a context in which existing laws are not enforced because sexual harassment is not seen as a crime, or even as something wrong. So we decided to tackle what we believe is the source of non-enforcement – social acceptability.
Based on these beliefs, we have crafted our approach to target the gaps we feel need to be addressed in order to make a real impact.
HarassMap was launched in December 2010, concurrently with the release of ‘678’, a landmark feature film about sexual harassment. The starting point was to use the reporting and mapping technology to support an offline community mobilization effort to break stereotypes, stop making excuses of perpetrators, and to convince people to speak out and act against sexual harassment. It makes us very happy to see that over the last years, sexual harassment has evolved from being a taboo topic to one that is widely discussed. Our team of volunteers continues to grow and we keep expanding our work on the ground and online.