CAIRO: In December 1999, the United Nations General Assembly set Nov. 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women with resolution 54/134, but 10 years later, violence rates remain high.
The UN estimates that about 1 in 3 women in the world has faced physical or sexual abuse at some point in her life. A woman between the ages 15 and 44 is more likely to suffer from domestic violence or rape than from cancer, malaria, motor accidents, and war.
The costs of violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the US are close to $5.8 billion per year; this amount includes medical care charges and productivity losses.
“Domestic violence in Egypt is not different from anywhere else in the world, says Madiha El Safty, Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo. “But women have not been reporting violence here. There is reluctance . and violence remains underreported and under-registered.
A 2000 UNICEF overview report states that 35 percent if married Egyptian women have been beaten by their husbands. The Association for Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) has published on their website similar figures for 1995, stating that 33 percent of women admit to being abused at some point in their marriage. A study conducted by the association in Manshiet Nasser, a poor neighborhood in Cairo, shows that 98 percent of women there suffer from physical or sexual violence.
In a 2007 study conducted by the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in six governorates, 79 percent of the women surveyed said they have been physically or sexually abused. Fifty-five percent of abused women (or 43 percent of all women on the survey) report that the perpetrator was their husband. Other frequent abusers are the father (20 percent), brother (12 percent), and a member of the husband’s family (5 percent).
The same study also demonstrates that there is no correlation between violence and poverty or lack of education; that is, an uneducated poor woman is just as likely to be abused as an educated well-to-do one.
“We get women from all classes, Muslims and Christians, illiterate and very well educated, says Asama Farag, the director of a shelter for women victims of violence in Sixth of October City. “Violence does not differentiate between educated and uneducated women, she adds, opening the file of one of the women at the shelter who has a degree in Engineering.
The shelter in Sixth of October is one of the eight shelters in Egypt. They are located in Cairo, Alexandria, Fayum, Mansoura, and Beni Suef. The institution in Sixth of October has the capacity to accept up to 25 women and their children, if any. Sponsored by the Ministry of Social Solidarity and private donors, the shelter provides food and lodging, family law consultations, and employment opportunities. Women are allowed to stay for up to one year in the shelter.
In that time, it is Farag’s job to resolve the problems that pushed the women to seek refuge from their families. She has to talk to the husband and the family of each victim to find her a home. Most women go back to their husbands who have to sign an official document not to hurt them any more.
“In Egyptian society, Farag says, “there is no choice. Women cannot live alone and divorce is bad for the children. Only one case out of the 500 she has dealt with since the opening of the center in 2005 has ended in divorce.
Victims of violence who are not married are not accepted. This rule complicates the work of organizations like El Nadeem Center which refer women to these shelters. “I had a great problem last month because a 15-year-old girl who got pregnant after she was raped is about to deliver and [her family] asked me to take her, says Dr Magda Adly, from El Nadeem Center. She explained that the family is from a small town where everyone knows each other and wanted the girl to give birth in Cairo, but she was unable to find her a place.
Social stigma is a serious barrier in front of women who try to resist or flee from violence. “Women feel that it’s not right to accuse their husbands, says Safty. Women also often do not report sexual violence because of embarrassment and the wide-spread misconception that women are to blame for provoking men to engage in such behavior.
Others are afraid of getting unwanted attention if they file for divorce. “No one at my work knows that I am separated from my husband, says 44-year-old Yasmine (not her real name). She says that she does not want people to know because men would and harass her.
After 20 years of abuse, Yasmine left her house when her husband shifted his violent behavior towards her children. She is currently living with her mother and sister in a small apartment. “I want to go back to my home, she says.
Another victim of violence, Amira (not her real name), cannot go back home either. She recently divorced her husband because he refused to leave his first wife. He, however, never touched her; she’s been a victim of a different type of violence. Her family – mother and sisters, in particular – have been physically abusing her since childhood and into adulthood. Having nowhere to go, Amira is currently fighting in court to get her apartment back from her estranged family.
Both Yasmine and Amira are struggling financially right now, trying to provide for themselves and their children. “Poverty is always an obstacle in front of us in empowering women, says Dr Adly. The widening gap between rich and poor, rising unemployment and lack of housing prevent women from becoming financially independent and able to take decisions on their own.
Dr Adly, however, sees some positive development. Since 1993 when El Nadeem Center opened, there have been more and more women seeking help and more open discussions in the public space on the issue of violence.
“The taboo has opened doors and no one can step in to close it, she concludes.