CAIRO – The Egyptian parliament on Monday tightened punishment for sexual harassment and related crimes and upgraded them to felony offences, aiming to curb sex-related assaults in a nation where women have long felt disadvantaged.
Sex crimes have been an increasing topic of conversation in recent years in the conservative, Muslim-majority nation, with several high-profile court cases coming to varying conclusions.
Dozens of Egyptians began posting accounts of sexual assault on social media last year, but campaigners say there remains a deep-rooted bias in Egypt to place more blame on women for behaviour deemed provocative than on men for sex crimes.
Public prosecutors in May shelved a case over a woman’s allegation that she was gang raped at a luxury hotel in Cairo in 2014 because of “insufficient evidence” against the defendants.
Referring to earlier laws passed in 2014, a parliamentary committee said in a report on Monday that “although the punishments listed were a quantum leap at the time, they did not achieve the necessary deterrence.”
— Tougher punishment —
In the measure approved on Monday, the penalty for sexual harassment was increased from a minimum of one year in prison to a minimum of five years or a penalty of up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($19,100), up from 20,000 pounds.
In situations where a power imbalance was in place because of a professional or familial relationship, or in cases involving the use of weapons or accomplices, the penalty was increased from a minimum of two to a minimum of seven years, in addition to a ten-fold increase of the maximum fine to 500,000 Egyptian pounds.
The penalties for stalking and general harassment were also increased substantially.
In August, the parliament approved a law protecting the identity of victims of sexual harassment and assault, after a social media campaign led to the arrest of a suspected sex offender.
— Calls for better enforcement —
After the introduction of the stronger penalties for sexual harassment offences, Egyptian women’s rights activists called on Monday for laws protecting women to be better enforced.
They welcomed the move by Egypt’s parliament but warned this would only be effective if enforcement of such laws was improved, citing a lack of awareness among police, judges and society as a whole.
Reda Eldanbouki, executive director of Egypt’s Women’s Centre for Guidance and Legal Awareness, said it was a “commendable step”, but awareness-raising and enforcement were the real challenges.
“What is really important is to put the law into effect, prepare mechanisms for implementation and raise social awareness about the dangers of sexual harassment,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Randa Fakhr El-Deen, executive director of the Union on Harmful Practices against Women and Children, an NGO, warned there was a risk the reclassification would further prolong the legal process, delaying justice for survivors.
“What really matters now is what is next. It is important to see harassers put in jail and punished instead of seeing them acquitted,” she said.