Partnering with local shop owners to create neighborhood safe zones free of sexual harassment

Digital map of sexual harassment reports

In Cairo, Harassmap uses SMS and mapping technology to identify areas where sexual harassment is likely to occur and partners with local shop owners to create “safe zones” in those areas.

Sexual harassment in Egypt is a deeply problematic issue for the residents of urban areas across the country. In Cairo, many women choose to drive where they need to go in order to avoid being assaulted in the streets or on public transportation. According to local activists, the issue has become chronic enough to impede women’s ability to take part in many social and public activities.

Harassmap allows women harassed in Cairo to take action by reporting their experience. A woman can send a text message to Harassmap with her location and the type of harassment to which she was subjected. She can also log on to the project’s website, www.harassmap.org, and report the incident. Harassmap volunteers then compile the reports on an interactive online map that shows the number of incidents reported in each specific area. The project makes use of Frontline SMS to receive and organize text messages and the Ushahidi mapping platform to create its interactive map.

Harassmap identifies the neighborhoods with the highest number of incidents reported and reaches out to people in those communities. They have chosen to focus on local shop owners because their businesses are negatively impacted by high level of harassment. Harassmap volunteers visit shop owners and talk with them about sexual harassment issues and how intervention in such incidents would help bring more people into their shops. Interested shop owners agree to display a poster that says “Catch a Harasser: Safe Zone” and intervene when they witness an incident of sexual harassment.

To raise awareness about the project, the Harassmap team has organized promotional campaigns around Cairo using stickers, flyers and public events.  On July 15, 2012, they held an open-mic session to allow victims of sexual harassment to share their stories.

The main challenges facing the project are financial sustainability and the maintenance of momentum. Harassmap relies entirely on volunteers and has no full-time staff.  Therefore, it has been difficult for the organization to coordinate all of these efforts and maintain the volunteers’ interest.  The organization has also struggled at times with convincing apathetic shop owners who saw Harassmap’s work a waste of time to participate in the project. Nevertheless, Harassmap continues to grow and see success in creating dialogue about the problem of sexual harassment in Egypt. Activists from twenty-five other countries have sought Harassmap’s help in creating similar programs, and in May 2015 the organization launched the Harasser = Criminal initiative to encourage people to report sexual harassment and stand up for others experiencing it.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

Harassmap makes effective use of existing technologies to aggregate the information it collects into a useable format for others. Other organizations may be able to benefit from SMS collection programs or the Ushaihidi platform, or they may find other technologies that meet their needs. In addition, Harassmap involves the community in its activism. Even though not all shop owners are receptive of the organization’s message, many are, leading to change over time. Harassmap’s public campaigns and initiatives also help their message against sexual harassment reach more people. Organizations should remember that community members do have a viable interest in the safety of their neighborhoods and though some people might seem to be unlikely allies, they may be able to help.