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(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should act quickly to combat all forms of violence and harassment against women, Human Rights Watch said today. After a spate of sexual assaults during post-election celebrations, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi told the prime minister Ibrahim Mahlab on June 11, 2014, to form a committee to address harassment. The committee is a positive step, but effective, comprehensive action needs to follow, Human Rights Watch said.

Egyptian rights groups documented at least nine incidents of mob sexual assaults and harassment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square between June 3 and 8 during celebrations of President Sisi’s election and inauguration. There had been other attacks in the square during post-election celebrations.

“This level of attention to sexual harassment from an Egyptian president needs to be judged by what actually results,” said Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A comprehensive national strategy would be a vital step toward stopping attacks on women, if implemented.”

President Sisi’s office said in a statement that the ministerial committee should include participation by the Muslim and Christian religious establishments to “identify the reasons for the spread of the phenomena of harassment and determine a national strategy to address it.”

On June 9, 2014,  25 Egyptian rights groups called for a comprehensive law on violence against women and a national strategy to implement such legislation.

Law reform should be central to the national strategy, Human Rights Watch said. Egypt has major gaps in its laws on violence against women. There is no specific law on domestic violence. The Penal Code has an outdated, narrow definition of rape. Even recent amendments on sexual harassment need improvement.

The reform should include provisions for victim assistance, protocols and guidelines for all government officials responding to violence against women, adequate funding for agencies carrying out the reforms and for monitoring their prevention and enforcement activities. The authorities should consult with Egyptian women’s rights groups and survivors when drafting the strategy and any new legislation.

In response to the recent attacks, the Interior Ministry reported arrests of seven men, and the public prosecution opened an investigation into three other men. On June 10, President Sisi told the interior minister to “take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment.” The following day, he paid a visit to a hospitalized victim of a sexual attack, accompanied by television cameras, during which he apologized to her and promised to hold the attackers accountable.

On June 9, Egyptian rights groups reported that at least 500 women had been sexually assaulted by mobs in Egypt  between February 2011 and January 2014, and that  thousands of women had been subjected to sexual harassment. In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented epidemic sexual violence in Egypt, including at least 91 attacks between June 30 and July 3, during demonstrations, and the weak government response.

On June 5, 2014, outgoing President Adly Mansour’s Decree No.50 of 2014 came into force, with two narrow amendments to the Penal Code. One broadened the definition of harassment and sexual harassment. Offenders can be sentenced to at least 6 months in prison or a fine of 5,000 to 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$700-$1,400). The second change increased penalties to between two and five years in prison and a fine of 20,000-50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,800-$7,000) when the offender is in a position of authority over the victim, if the crime is committed by two or more people, or one of the offenders is armed with a weapon.

The Egyptian authorities are required to act both under binding international law, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and Egypt’s new constitution to protect “women against all forms of violence.” This requires enacting and enforcing comprehensive legislation for which the authorities should look to the United Nations Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women for guidance.

“Gruesome sexual attacks on women marred President Sisi’s election and inauguration,” Begum said. “Egypt’s women, and the world, are watching to see what President Sisi will do to put a halt to the sexual attacks and harassment.”

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