02/11/2013 12:15 EST | Updated 04/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Could Mobile Technology Combat Sexual Harassment?

It's almost impossible to not have a day go by without hearing about an incident of sexual harassment, assault or rape occurring somewhere in the world. Then come the proactive hash tags, fan pages of support, and a myriad of online petitions. Armchair activism in full effect. And this is precisely what Cairo-based NGO worker Rebecca Chiao did NOT want to happen when she initiated a team of volunteers to fight the problem of sexual harassment on the streets of their city. When she was introduced to social mapping and heard that half of the many cellphone users in Egypt were women, she knew exactly what to do.

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Egyptian anti-government protesters march in the city center of the Egyptian capital Cairo to protest against the death of protesters, during last week's demonstrations against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood on February 7, 2013. A 23-year-old man, Mohammed Hussein Qarni died of a gunshot wound outside the presidential palace on February 1, where stone and petrol bomb throwing protesters faced off with police into the night. AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

It's almost impossible to not have a day go by without hearing about an incident of sexual harassment assault or rape occurring somewhere in the world. The obvious catalyst for this recent global awareness was the New Delhi gang rape atrocity.

After the shock subsided, "Why?" was often the conversation starter as we desperately tried to process it all. What was the cause? Cultural differences? Economic disparity? Was it her fault? When it comes to countries such as India, Egypt and now South Africa (currently shaken up by their own gang rape incident of a high school girl) the respective society's balancing act is tough: torn between their engrained cultural direction, often backed by ignorant perspectives, all the while, openly courting the allure of modernity with today's democratic protest-driven world.

Then came the proactive hash tags, fan pages of support, and a myriad of online petitions -- most of which can be questionable -- providing a false sense of action just by the click of the mouse. Last but not least is the now obligatory (and quite silly in my opinion) "We Are All [enter the victim's name here]" verbal movement that keeps popping up from one status update to the next.

It's armchair activism in full effect.

And this is precisely what Cairo-based NGO worker Rebecca Chiao did NOT want to happen when she initiated a team of volunteers to fight the problem of sexual harassment on the streets of their city. Having lived in Egypt since 2004, Rebecca includes herself and her co-workers among those who have been followed and subject to public harassment. Often happening en route to work, originating from the metro and leading up to the office complex where ironically enough, housed their place of employment, the Egyptian Centre For Women's Rights (ECFW).

"Some would come in crying and traumatized," Rebecca reflected. The harassment wasn't reserved for a certain "type." It was open season for everybody. "[The women were] veiled, unveiled, [they were] Egyptian and foreigners. It even happened throughout the month of Ramadan."

She understood the importance of delivering the message directly to the doors of the local residents. Beyond the TV ads, PSAs, and government advocacy actions. Beyond the hash tags and the Facebook updates.

There needed to be more. So her team outlined a plan to not only spread awareness of what sexual harassment really is, but also to provide educational tools for locals to start fostering a community of intolerance and protection.

Setting The Record Straight

When Rebecca was part of the Safe Streets For All (SSFA) campaign, she realized that she had to actually explain to the locals the proper definition of "sexual harassment." Whether it was an English-to-Arabic lost-in-translation moment, or a result of a cultural connotation, the actual term was commonly used to specifically label child rapists.

With that definition, Egyptians were quick to point out that "sexual harassment" did not happen on their streets. Eventually the SSFA campaign gained the backing of NGOs while government-sponsored television ads and literature where doled out all in a combined effort to educate the general public on the accurate meaning of sexual harassment and ways of stopping it. The media jumped on board and it buzzed and buzzed. Then it stopped.

The message hit its peak and plateaued. "It was the same messages over and over again. People weren't engaged," Rebecca explained.

Eureka! In Egypt

In 2009, she was introduced to the concept of social mapping by a fellow concerned citizen. With that fresh information at hand, combined with recently unearthed stats that 97 per cent of Egyptians use cell phones and half of that number were women, Rebecca knew exactly what to do.

Fast-forward to December of 2010: HarassMap was born.

HarassMap is social mapping program, with a built-in reporting system. A forum where people can "speak out and report incidents anonymously," Rebecca explains. "We linked the platforms together to a frontline SMS service."

She, in fact, created a virtual "safe space." A place where one can visit the website , or text in via their SMS short code (strategically marketed by social media blasts and the plastering of eye-catching stickers all over town) one can anonymously report details of an incident which either happened to them or they've witnessed, including specifics such as address, street name and public points of interest. The SMS number has an automatic response system, which is sent back to the reporter, listing contact numbers for various essential services including self defence classes, psychological counseling and legal aid.

Due to its anonymous nature, people were able to be as specific as they wanted when reporting back. The HarassMap team were taken aback at how much the people wanted to talk, because of the lack of information that already existed. "There was no safe space to speak out," Rebecca explained. "[There was] no documentation. [Services] existed but not publicized." And when they started collecting the harassment reports, the level of openness shocked the team. "We were shocked at what we were reading because if the [women] said this in front of their husband, or father, they would have been punished."

Once the report passes the team's validity test it's then reflected in the form of a red dot which is placed on a map of Egypt, giving the problem a clear visual picture. Easily accessible on their website, the public can click on the dot and see the transcript of the actual SMS report. This is where Rebecca and her team do their most important work.

Taking It to the Streets

"We spend 95 per cent of our time organizing community outreach data," Rebecca explains.

Through their own network, or by strangers who are eager to get involved, groups of volunteers are trained to go back to their own neighbourhood and conduct informational meetings in order to educate the locals about the concept of sexual harassment and how to stop it.

"We needed to change the social acceptability of sexual harassment," Rebecca emphasized. She knew that they first needed to clear a path straight to the heart of the matter, by brushing away interfering cobwebs of cultural misconceptions.

She quickly notes the common stereotypes swirling around neighbourhood blocks which prevent the locals from taking action i.e. "it's the girl's fault"; "she likes it"; "it's what she's wearing" (which falls flat in the face of a survey conducted by ECFWR that 72 per cent of women who are harassed are veiled); "it's flirting" or because the harasser is poor and can't get married, is sexually frustrated and "can't help himself."

They work closely with local shops, restaurants and other public venues to declare them as "safe zones" -- and distinguished by another visible sticker by HarassMap. Rebecca emphasizes that the magic bullet is being able to share the actual SMS report. "We show the texts of the reports, which are very dramatic. They [then] see how bad it is. It's really compelling -- you can see the change in their face as you read the reports [to them]."


Six months ago, Ottawa's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) entered the picture. By offering a grant, HarassMap's operational costs are now covered and a core staff is in place. Allowing Rebecca and her team to hone in on crowd sourcing techniques to gather data as well as to see how social media has a hand in the overall campaign.

The results were revealing. Not so surprising was the debunking of misguided beliefs that sexual harassment is only relegated to big cities, at night and in dark alleys. They now have statistical evidence showing sexual harassment happening in rural areas during the day and in wide-open spaces.

It also gave the HarassMap team a jolt when their data collection showed (as well as hearing from their male volunteers first-hand) that women weren't the only victims of sexual harassment, but men were as well, often harassed by other men and by women. "We just had this blind spot. So based on that, we can now improve our programs by reaching out to schools and talk about this issue in a different way," Rebecca notes.

HarassMap's success hasn't gone unnoticed. Over 19 different countries (including India) have reached out to Rebecca and her team for guidance on setting up a similar system in their own backyard. She hopes that Egyptian society can go back to the way it once was, where statistically sexual harassment cases were lower when public interference was high. "We are hoping that it will become similar to the 'Thief' concept: When you shout 'Thief!' everyone comes. No excuses. This is what I want to see in harassment incidents."

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