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Egyptian Women Have a New Tool to Fight Sexual Harassment

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Rebecca Chiao stepped out of her office into Cairo's rush hour. She expected to meet a friend, but instead, the young Pennsylvania-born woman was accosted by a man who unzipped his pants and exposed his genitals.

Frozen in shock, Chiao desperately hoped for a passer-by to intervene, but no one moved to stop the pervert. A few even glared at her as though she were somehow responsible for the sexual assault. Chiao's friend arrived and she fled by car.

In the days that followed she related her story to female friends and co-workers. All shared stories of public sexual harassment.

This past week, Chiao travelled across Canada telling her story and the innovative solution she has developed to fight back. With the help of a grant from Canada's International Development Research Centre, she is using online tools to help change Egyptian attitudes to sexual harassment and make the streets safer for women and men. It's called HarassMap.

A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights found that 83 per cent of Egyptian women had experienced sexual assault -- anything from indecent exposure to groping to mob attacks, coordinated and politically-motivated attacks where 50 to 100 men will single out one woman, usually during a protest demonstration, and assault her.

Chiao says although Egypt has laws against sexual harassment they are poorly enforced by police. So through technology, Chiao empowers women to tackle harassment wherever it happens.

Sexual assault of women is climbing to the forefront of global issues. In India, a tidal wave of rage has risen over gang rapes. Last year's election in the U.S. was punctuated by frighteningly ill-informed comments by high-profile political figures about rape. Everywhere around the world, people need more information and awareness to combat sexual violence. That's where social media can play a role.

Launched in 2010, HarassMap allows women in Egypt to report incidents of sexual harassment using Twitter, Facebook, SMS texting, email, mobile phone app, or the Harassmap.org website. Each incident report shows up as a red dot on the website's map of Egypt pin pointing where the incident occurred. By clicking on the dot, you can read exactly what was written by the person reporting the assault.

When a woman reports an attack, she receives immediate help, including information on how and where she can get support, such as counselling or legal assistance.

The idea and technology behind HarassMap originated in Kenya, which was wracked with violence during the 2007 election. Kenyan activists created an online tool to report and map outbreaks of violence. Ushahidi, as it was called, was open sourced so anyone could easily create their own "crowdsourced" reporting system, gathering their own information to take on their own local issues.

HarassMap goes further: information gathered online supports offline activism in the streets of Cairo. It trains volunteers to talk to residents and businesses in their own neighbourhoods, teaching people about harassment and pushing them to step in when they see a woman under assault.

The information gleaned from HarassMap becomes invaluable ammunition to combat common myths about harassment. People who argue harassment doesn't happen in their neighbourhood, or that the problem is exaggerated, are shocked when volunteers pull out the map and show them the dots, spread like measles across Cairo. Those who say women bring attacks on themselves by wearing revealing clothing are stunned to read reports from victims in conservative Muslim robes and veils.

Chiao says she and her colleagues check each report that comes in, and false are remarkably easy to spot. A bigger problem, she says, is misrepresentation of data.

According to Chiao, 8.5 per cent of the reports to HarassMap identify a youth as the aggressor. Does that mean 8.5 per cent of all sexual harassment in Egypt is committed by youth? Not necessarily.

Likewise, just because there are many reports from one particular neighbourhood, is that neighbourhood unsafe? Again, no -- people in that neighbourhood may simply be more aware of the HarassMap, and therefore more likely to report. Chiao says people must be very careful how they use and interpret crowdsourced data.

Chiao estimates that more than 11,000 initiatives like HarassMap have now borrowed the Ushahidi template to crowdsource solutions to a wide range of problems. The Ushahidi system was used to locate survivors after the Haiti earthquake. In the southern U.S., an environmental group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade tracks petrochemical pollution. India Citizen Reports is an Ushahidi-based initiative tackling crime and corruption in India.

From Cairo to Mumbai to Port-au-Prince, social media is furthering the power of ordinary people to take on the big problems of our world and create positive change.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com

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