Warning: This case deals with topics that are especially grave and may cause trauma invoked by memories of past abuse. If you have experienced violence and need assistance, please refer to this list of country help lines provided by UN Women.
Sexual harassment and violence against women in public spaces
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
If you are threatened, attacked or fear for your safety in public spaces, it is the duty of the state to protect you and address the cause of the issue. But what happens if violence or threats of it are used as a tool by police or other public officials to stop you from exercising your human rights and fundamental freedoms?
Sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence and obvious manifestation of the inequality women face as a result of deeply rooted discrimination and gender stereotypes. All too often this violation goes overlooked, being accepted as ‘normal’ until it reaches extreme heights.
On 25 May 2005, the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kefaya) organised a political demonstration at Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum aimed at amending the Egyptian Constitution to allow for multi-candidate presidential elections. Four female journalists – Shaimaa Abou Al-Kheir, Nawal Ali Mohammed Ahmed, Abir al-Askari and Iman Taha Kamel – were present at the demonstration when violence broke out between Kefaya and supporters of the National Democratic Party (NDP).
Nawal was on her way to attend an English course, when a group of NDP supporters, acting on orders from a police officer, pushed her to the ground, tore her clothes, sexually assaulted her and seized her belongings. Following the attack, investigators refused to record statements by eye witnesses and Nawal received threats from Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers to withdraw her complaint. She was dismissed from her job at Al Gil Newspaper and her husband divorced her for the “scandal” she had become involved in.
‘Abir was covering the demonstration as a journalist for Al Doustour Newspaper when she was hit in the face and stomach while trying to photograph the scene. In an attempt to escape, ‘Abir got into a taxi with Shaimaa, when the Chief of the Intelligence Unit of Boulaq Abou Al-’Ela Police Station stopped them. ‘Abir was dragged out of the taxi. An SSI officer ordered a group of female NDP supporters to tear off ‘Abir’s clothes and hit her. She was later dragged to the main street where security and police officers continued to hit, sexually assault, insult (calling her abusive names such as “whore” and “slut”) and slap her face. Again, following the attack, investigators refused to take eyewitness statements and ‘Abir received anonymous threats to withdraw her complaint.
Shaimaa was also a journalist for Al Doustour Newspaper, and was taking part in the protest. In her attempt to escape the scene with ‘Abir, Shaimaa was dragged out of the taxi and attacked by female NDP supporters. During the attack, Shaimaa was beaten, bitten, her hair pulled and her clothes torn. She was rescued by people in a nearby building. Like Nawal and ‘Abir, investigators did not take eyewitness statements following the attack and she received threats to withdraw her complaint.
Iman was a journalist for Nahdat Misr Newspaper and member of Kefaya. During the demonstration, a group of men pushed her against the wall and hit her in the stomach until she collapsed. She was kicked in the pubic area while others beat her and tried to tear off her clothes. Although police officers saw what was happening to Iman, they refused to come to her assistance, allow her to seek medical help or access the nearby building for protection – where Shaimaa was taken for safety. Iman spent two days in the hospital undergoing treatment for the injuries she suffered as a result of the attack. She – like Nawal, ‘Abir and Shaimaa – received threats to withdraw her complaint.
Together, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and INTERIGHTS brought Nawal, ‘Abir, Shaimaa and Iman’s cases to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.
What was the decision?
“…the concept of human rights is based on a typical recognition that every human being is equal and also recognizes the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. Accordingly, when women are targeted due to their political opinion for the mere fact of being women, and are not assured the necessary level of protection by the State in the face of that violence, a range of their fundamental human rights are at stake, including their right to sexual equality.” (para. 155)
The Commission decided that Egypt was responsible for violating Nawal, ‘Abir, Shaimaa and Iman’s human rights, specifically:
- African Charter on Human and People’s Rights:
- Article 1: Obligations of member states
- Article 2: Right to freedom from discrimination
- Article 3: Right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law
- Article 5: Prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
- Article 9(2): Right to express and disseminate opinions within the law
- Article 16(1): Right to health
- Article 18(3): Right of non-discrimination against women
- Article 26: Duty to guarantee independence of the Courts
The discriminatory intent underlying the attacks was evidenced by the abusive language used at the demonstration (e.g. ‘slut’ and ‘whore’), which were gendered terms “generally meant to degrade and rip off the integrity of women who refuse to abide by traditional religious, and even social norms” (para. 143). The gender-based nature of the assaults was made clear through the type of harassment and physical violence used – which can only be directed and women. Breast fondling, for example, was an obvious example of gender-based violence used.
Despite witnessing the violent acts taking place, Egyptian public officials had failed to protect all four women from the violations they suffered – and, in some cases, were the cause of the attacks. In addition to Nawal, ‘Abir, Shaimaa and Iman’s cases, the Commission also heard accounts of other acts of violence against women committed at the demonstration. Together, these stories indicated the attacks were part of a systematic sexual violence targeted at women participating or present in the scene of the demonstration.
“…perpetrators of the assaults seemed to be aware of the context of the Egyptian society; an Arab Muslim society where a woman’s virtue is measured by keeping herself physically and sexually unexposed except to her husband. The perpetrators were aware of the consequences of such acts on the Victims, both to themselves and their families, but still perpetrated the acts as a means of punishing and silencing them from expressing their political opinions” (para. 152).
These failures continued after the demonstration when investigations were not undertaken to bring perpetrators to justice. For these reasons (and more), the Commission found that Egypt’s failures constituted a violation under Article 2 and Article 18(3) under the African Charter. Furthermore, because the discriminatory acts of violence were committed with the aim of preventing the women, who were journalists, from reporting on the events and taking part in the demonstration, Egypt had also violated their rights under Article 9(2) of the African Charter.
The acts of gender-based violence directed at the women during the demonstration weren’t only discriminatory. The Commission also recognised these acts were severe, gravely humiliating and amounted to ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ prohibited under Article 5 of the African Charter, as well as other sources of international law. Recalling Article 4(c) of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (para. 204), the Commission ruled that Egypt had failed to meet its due diligence obligations in preventing, investigating and punishing the inhuman and degrading treatment suffered by all four women. Because this did not happen, Egypt was also responsible for violating the women’s rights under Article 5 of the African Charter. Additionally, the Commission recognised (making reference to General Comment No. 14 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) that Egypt had a duty to ensure both state and non-state actors did not infringe on the women’s right to the health. The trauma and injuries sustained by Nawal, ‘Abir, Shaimaa and Iman clearly impacted their physical, psychological and mental health are evidence of Egypt’s failure to protect this right, therefore violating Article 16(1) under the African Charter.
The Commission also recognised that the principle of non-discrimination and equality underlying Article 2 of the African Charter also extended to Article 3’s guarantee of equality before the law. Equality before the law requires the state to take action against discrimination and ensure all persons are equally protected by the law – which sometimes requires consideration for special risks certain groups face. It also requires equality in the administration of justice. Regardless of gender, Egypt had a duty to provide Nawal, ‘Abir, Shaimaa and Iman the same investigation and criminal procedures that are used in other cases that come before law enforcement and the courts. It was clear that none of these things had happened and no other reason besides gender-based discrimination could explain why. Therefore, Egypt could also be held responsible for violating Article 3 under the African Charter.
The insufficient investigations led by Egyptian officials were also impacted by a lack of impartiality. By focusing on the ‘discrepancies’ between statements given by each survivor and refusing to collect evidence from witnesses that corroborate the stories, the investigators had unjustly dismissed the process because they concluded that the perpetrators could not be identified. In order for women to access impartial and effective judicial mechanisms, states must provide the structures and mechanisms necessary to enable survivors to obtain redress. Because Egypt had failed to do this at the investigative step in the process, it had violated the women’s rights under Article 26 of the African Charter.
Finally, because Egypt had failed to protect, promote and fulfil the above rights as required by the African Charter, its actions had amounted to a violation of Article 1.
As a result of their conclusions, the African Commission (para. 25):
- Requested that Egypt amend its laws to bring them in line with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
- Requested EP 57,000 be given as compensation to each of the women – Nawal, ‘Abir, Shaimaa and Iman
- Urged Egypt to investigate the complaints filed by Nawal, ‘Abir, Shaimaa and Iman, and bring the perpetrators to justice
- Urged Egypt to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)
Learning from other institutions
Throughout the text of the case document, Nawal, ‘Abir, Shaimaa and Iman’s stories were supported by what other institutions and authorities had said about violence against women, gender-based discrimination and human rights. Some of the references to these institutions and authorities included (numbers correspond to paragraphs within the case document):
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): 88-9, 122-3, 165,
- General Recommendation No. 19 (CEDAW): 123
- Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women: 204
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 244, 262
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: 208, 244
- Human Rights Committee: 146-7, 227
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, GC 14: 262-3
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: 191-2, 207
- European Court of Human Rights: 53, 69, 72, 80-1, 19-4, 200, 202, 228-30
- Inter-American Court of Human Rights: 71, 146, 205, 251
- Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: 158, 164, 251
- AT v Hungary: 89
- Penha v Brazil: 158, 164
- Velasquez Rodriguez v. Honduras: 205
EIPR and Interights v. Egypt was the first decision on women’s rights issued by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Although the Commission did not apply the Maputo Protocol to the case, its recognition of gender-based violence as discrimination and a violation of women’s human rights has impacted the way we understand the state obligation to end it. Specifically, the sexual harassment and violence women suffer in public places as a result of gender-based discrimination and gender stereotypes.
Since the conclusion of the case, Egypt has not taken any action on the Commission’s recommendations. Although this case was a significant step in recognising gender-based violence as discrimination and a human rights violation, Egypt’s inaction serves as an important reminder that the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights can only rule on a state’s compliance with its treaty obligations – it cannot overturn domestic decisions nor can it force states to take action.
- Women’s Access to Justice for Gender-Based Violence: ICJ Practitioners’ Guide (2016)
- FIDH: Egypt: Keeping Women Out – Sexual violence in the public sphere, documenting over 250 cases on sexual violence against women in public spaces that took place from November 2012 – January 2014