Egypt held to account for failing to protect women demonstrators from sexual assault - Commission tells Egyptian Government to compensate women as well as to investigate the assaults and punish those responsible
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has handed down a decision in a case concerning violence against four women journalists during a protest. The Commission found that the state of Egypt failed to protect four women journalists from violence and in doing so violated their human rights including rights to equality and non-discrimination, right to dignity and protection from cruel inhuman and degrading treatment and their right to express and disseminate opinions within the law. In an environment where sexual violence continues to go unpunished in most member states of the African Union, this decision makes a valuable contribution ensuring states are held to account when they fail to protect women from violence. Hossam Bahgat, Executive Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who worked on the case said “the decision is a victory for women who face sexual violence and other forms of political and social impediments while exercising their right to participate in public life”. Sibongile Ndashe, a lawyer from Interights who worked on the case hailed the decision as significant given that “for the first time in its 25 year history, the Commission has handed down a decision on the duty of states to protect women from violence”.
On 25 May 2005, the four women applicants in the case, Shaimaa Abou Al-Kheir, Nawal Ali Mohammed Ahmed, Abir al-Askari and Iman Taha Kamel were present at demonstrations organized by opposition movements to protest against constitutional amendments that consolidated the authoritarian rule of ousted President Mubarak. Sadly, Nawal Ali Mohammend Ahmed passed away in 2009. The four women were all journalists. Some were attending the demonstration in their professional capacity to report on events, others as concerned citizens exercising their right to attend a demonstration. One applicant was only in the area by coincidence as she was attending a language class. Police forces and thugs operating in full view of the police clamped down on the protesters, sexually assaulting the four women as well as other female protesters, tearing their clothes, molesting and verbally abusing them. The women testified that they were called ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ as well as being touched inappropriately on their breasts and private parts. The assailers warned the women not to participate in similar political events.
Attempts to seek domestic justice proved to be futile. The women lodged formal complaints with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which refused to take the testimony of several eyewitnesses and failed to conduct thorough independent investigation. The women were later threatened, both by unidentified individuals as well as, given the sexual nature of the violations the women suffered, people within their social circles, to withdraw their complaints. At the end of 2005, the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced its decision not to prosecute.
In May 2006, having been unable to secure redress for what had happened to them, the women submitted a complaint to the African Commission. The women were represented by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, together with international human rights group Interights.
The Commission found that the State had failed to protect the women from violence. It found that the attacks were gender-specific and were therefore discriminatory. In its decision, the Commission took into consideration that the attacks were systematic and targeted at women, aiming to ‘keep women in their place’ by denying them space to protest and express their political opinions. In its decision, the Commission acknowledged that “the 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…”
The State had argued that the women had failed to provide the authorities with required information and that their statements contained inconsistencies. The Commission found that the violations perpetrated were palpable physically as well as medically proven; the State did not need further information to proceed with the investigations that should have brought the perpetrators to justice. The Commission urged Egypt to hold an investigation and punish those found responsible as well as to amend their laws to bring them in line with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1984. The Commission also called for each of the women to be compensated in the sum of EP 57,000 ($US 8,000) for the physical and emotional damage they suffered. The Commission urged Egypt to ratify the Women’s Protocol to the African charter.
The decision comes at a very opportune moment. Egyptian women fighting for their rights for participation in public and political life continue to suffer from sexual violence by state and non-state actors. Egyptian authorities have continuously failed to take necessary steps to address sexual violence and discrimination against women which has so far led to an atmosphere of impunity for perpetrators. In September 2012, EIPR and Interights submitted a further complaint to the African Commission on military abuses against female protesters, including the carrying out of “virginity tests” in a military prison.
Notes for editors
- The name of the case before the Commission was Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and Interights v Egypt (323/2006)
- EIPR (www.eipr.org) is an independent Egyptian human rights organisation that was established in 2002 to promote and defend the personal rights and freedoms of individuals.
- Interights (www.interights.org) is an international NGO which works to ensure that human rights standards are protected and promoted effectively in domestic courts and before regional and international bodies.
- Ratified by 53 countries including Egypt, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is a charter intended to promote and protect human rights and freedoms in Africa
- The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights is a quasi-judicial body which promotes and protects human rights in Africa including through being the body which oversees and interprets the African Charter.
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