Interview: Women's rights in Egypt "at stake" amid protests, assaults: UN official

2013-02-15 00:32:24 GMT2013-02-15 08:32:24(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Rosalind Adams

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 14 (Xinhua) -- While protests in Egypt continue and sexual assaults against women have risen to alarming levels, Egyptian women continue to fight for their individual freedoms, a UN Women official told Xinhua in a recent interview.

Maya Morsy, UN Women's country coordinator for Egypt, said from Cairo in a phone interview that "there is a backlash; the women's agenda in Egypt is at stake."

Morsy made the remarks as UN officials are taking a stance against violence against women as part of the "One Billion Rising. " The One Billion Rising campaign, sponsored by the V-day Organization, seeks to mobilize men and women around the world on Valentine's Day -- observed annually in various countries on Feb. 14 -- to raise their voices to stop violence against women and girls, including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM), and sex slavery.

Two years ago, a revolution toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, but there has been a resurgence of protests against current President Mohamed Morsi's government. The protests peaked on Jan. 25, the second anniversary of the 2011 unrest, and also brought a wave of violent sexual assaults against women, reports said.

Women have not hesitated to speak out against the violence, even in the tenuous political climate, Morsy said, adding that they have been increasingly talking about their experiences in public ways, such as on widely viewed television shows that have made their experiences hard to dismiss.

"There is more disclosure. Women are standing up and talking about their traumas and are actually calling for support from the government," she said. "No one is saying whether it is happening or not. There is a clear victim talking on TV live."

In the interview with Xinhua, Morsy agreed that significant change must come from the government and said UN Women is pushing for a sexual harassment law. Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil has also raised the issue in light of the attacks.

"If we don't have a commitment on women's rights at the highest possible level in Egypt, it will be very difficult for anything to happen, or for a law to even happen," she said.

Some of the problems lie within the current penal code, "which currently does not have any definition about sexual harassment itself," said Morsy. "So there has to be a definition and a penalty based on this definition."

Morsy said that women's groups have joined together since the unrest in Egypt began two years ago in an effort to communicate that women's rights in the country must continue to be a priority. "We are very keen to not lose what women in Egypt have gained for the past years. The agenda of women was undermined in Egypt."

Though a quota law was passed in 2009, which guaranteed women 64 seats in the Parliament, this law was not included when the new constitution was drawn up in 2011. Quota laws are common among some other Arabian countries, such as Iraq or Rwanda, to ensure political empowerment and participation for women.

There is a confrontation over women's rights between the conservative, moderate and liberal groups, Morsy said. "Women are feeling that they are the bargaining card between the political groups."

"We are seeing the conservative power push towards more conservative legislation and to decrease women's role in general in the society," she said.

While policy changes from the current regime may be slow to come, the spirit of the revolution and the belief in individual rights among women, and the younger generation as a whole remains strong, said Morsy.

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