Sanad: Egyptian initiative fights gender-based violence

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9 min read
22 October, 2021
Sanad is a new organisation offering legal support to victims of gender-based violence in Egypt. Enas Kamal reports on the group's origins and how it is working with other associations to help plug the void in women's rights in the country.

One day in June, earlier this year, 20-something Marwa (not her real name), was beaten so badly by her father that she was left with a broken foot, before being thrown out of the family home. Alone and injured, Marwa had no idea who to turn to.

Via a Facebook page and the help of a friend, Marwa discovered Sanad, a feminist initiative offering legal support to female victims of violence in Egypt. The initiative helped her to file a complaint against her father, which led to his imprisonment for three days while the case was investigated. Finally, he was made to sign a pledge that he would not repeat the assault and she returned home. She is currently working and her situation is stable.

Marwa is one of 5,000,600 victims of domestic violence in Egypt according to The Economic Cost of Gender-Based Violence Survey which was published by the National Council for Women in cooperation with the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in 2015.

"Egypt has high rates of gender-based violence, the majority of which is domestic violence. At the same time, there are many factors which make women and girls unwilling to report instances of harassment, sexual and domestic violence"

'Miss D' (30) was also thrown out by her father into the streets, with no warning, after his new wife took against her.

"'Miss D' is from a family with a history of schizophrenia. Her father kicked her out because of his new wife after her mother died, so I invited her to stay with me while I contacted various civil society organisations to find a secure place for her to stay longer-term," says Nasima al-Khatib, founder of Sanad.

Marwa and 'Miss D' are two of more than 70 women and girls to who Sanad has provided legal support for free since its launch earlier this year (2021) by five lawyers, three of whom are women.

The start of Sanad’s story

Today, al-Khatib is a human rights lawyer. But she herself is a survivor of domestic violence, which took a heavy toll on her both physically and mentally and led her to take the decision to study law in order to help other women who were suffering similar situations.

Sanad: Egyptian initiative fights gender-based violence
Women played a vital role in the January 25 Revolution. However, sexual violence against female demonstrators during and after the revolution including by state security forces was widespread [Getty ]

Further down the line, she consulted a group of lawyers on an idea she had – to set up an initiative that gave tangible support to women by offering them legal support for free: this is how Sanad was born.

"I felt as though when women came to us looking for help, they needed someone to lean on (this is the meaning of sanad), in order for them to talk about what they had experienced – this is where the name Sanad came from," says al-Khatib.

Egypt has high rates of gender-based violence, the majority of which is domestic violence. At the same time, there are many factors that make women and girls unwilling to report instances of harassment, sexual and domestic violence.

A major reason is a difficulty in providing evidence in many cases, and another is the lack of general awareness when it comes to women's rights according to Egyptian law.

"One of the app's functions allows users to enter their location if they are being harassed and give details of what is happening. This information will be automatically transferred to one of Sanad's lawyers so that they can immediately proceed with advice and take steps forward"

Hence there was a need for psychological support which could be easily accessed, such as was offered by the phone app Matkhafeesh – an Egyptian app launched in December 2020 which was the first to combat different forms of harassment and help survivors to recover.

It was created in partnership with Sanad so that legal support could also be provided. One of the app's functions allows users to enter their location if they are being harassed and give details of what is happening. This information will be automatically transferred to one of Sanad's lawyers so that they can immediately proceed with advice and take steps forward.

Over the last nine months, Sanad has also been working with two other Egyptian feminist organisations: The New Woman Foundation and Al-Nadeem, which provide non-legal support to survivors of domestic violence.

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Men are welcome too

Men can also be subject to domestic violence says al-Khatib. However, the forms it takes are often different and they are often extremely reluctant to admit to abuse for fear of the social stigma.

"They are unwilling to reveal what has happened to them or to ask for support. However, we have been approached by men. There was a 31-year old who had been a political prisoner and who wanted mental health support, so we directed him to Al-Nadeem who offer that.

"There was another in his twenties who had been physically assaulted by three older men. He didn’t want legal support either – both were just looking for psychological support, as was a young transsexual who we referred to another initiative which offers support to transsexuals."

"The economic cost resulting from gender-based violence in Egypt showed that the cost to women and their households was 1.49 billion Egyptian pounds (EGP) annually (around £69 million). This statistic only took into account violence perpetrated by husbands or fiancés"

There have been some who have not welcomed such initiatives. Al-Khatib describes what have appeared to be underhand attempts to damage Sanad's reputation and the whole idea of the fundamental principle "We believe the survivors". For example, she explains how someone who appeared to be a young woman (from their profile picture) started posting sexually explicit messages on Sanad's Facebook page.

"In the messages, it was as though she was narrating the script of a porn film… I asked her to send me her ID and she blocked me. Then she went to all the organisations that offer support to women and started doing the same thing to them.

"We suspected that this person was actually male, because of the way they were verbally harassing everyone who tried to communicate with them, but we were unable to confirm whether this was the case. In the end, we sent a message explaining what had happened to all the organisations we know that offer support to women to warn them about this person."

According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in 2016, the economic cost resulting from gender-based violence in Egypt showed that the cost to women and their households was 1.49 billion Egyptian pounds (EGP) annually (around £69 million).

This statistic only took into account violence perpetrated by husbands or fiancés. Of this total, EGP 831m were considered direct costs, and EGP 661m indirect costs, which include expenses like those incurred when a woman has to change her place of residence, and other aspects of her life, because of violence against her and her family.

The agency also points out that 16.2 percent of women were unemployed in the second quarter of 2020 even though women are the breadwinners for 30 percent of families in the country. This means that the economic burden falling on women is enormous, therefore the decision to spend money on a lawyer is one that needs a lot of thought. Hence Sanad’s decision to provide its services for free.

Why support women?

Al-Khatib explains that cases concerning women are the most neglected both in Egyptian society and in terms of the law: "For example with domestic violence cases, there are no laws to support and protect women. An example of this is the crime of marital rape which is still not acknowledged to this day. Also, most women don’t have much awareness of the legal system and what you should do if you are facing issues like talaq (Islamic divorce), khul' (a divorce process initiated by women which is dealt with in civil courts as opposed to talaq), and alimony."

"Cases concerning women are the most neglected both in Egyptian society and in terms of the law"

She believes that initiatives such as Sanad, which are provoking discussion about women's rights as well as offering support, are the reason that practical measures are being proposed, like the ministerial decision issued in late August to establish a unit dedicated to combatting violence against women.

This will be attached to the Egyptian cabinet and is intended to receive and act on reports of gender-based violence with a view to simplifying the process for victims who will be able to submit and follow up their complaints all in one place.

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She also draws attention to the fact that there are several new civil society foundations that have appeared in recent years offering legal services to women. However, accusations that they have been receiving foreign funding has led these groups to maintain a low profile in order to avoid legal pursuit.

Who supports Sanad and other organisations like it financially?

These initiatives need financial support, but al-Khatib confirms that in Sanad's case, the bulk of activity is based on voluntary work done by the lawyers themselves, who also shoulder most of the necessary costs.

The passing of Law 149: 'Regulating the Work of Civil Associations' in 2019 by presidential decree, has brought in a raft of restrictive regulations which place obstacles in front of many civil society initiatives' activities and ability to access funding. Therefore, Sanad is aware that for the foreseeable future any actions it plans to take will need to be privately funded.

"Law 149: 'Regulating the Work of Civil Associations' in 2019 by presidential decree, has brought in a raft of new and restrictive regulations which place obstacles in front of many civil society initiatives' activities and ability to access funding"

Nevin Obeid, veteran feminist researcher and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the New Woman Foundation, says she supports Sanad and similar initiatives that empower women and promote gender equality.

She welcomes their presence and independence, adding that Egypt's population currently exceeds 100 million, and with the high rates of poverty and violence endemic throughout the country, there is a need for initiatives that provide psychological and legal support and which cover all regions.

The New Woman Foundation has also provided psychological and legal support to women for nearly 30 years, but Obeid believes that as long as newer initiatives work alongside organisations that share the same goals, they are a welcome addition and there is no sense of competition.

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Obeid adds that the sustainability of an initiative's work depends on the quality of the services it provides, the appreciation of the community for what it is doing, and its members' conviction. These aspects are all essential because sometimes support will dry up.

This was a big problem over the past two years, which saw the halting of support for many civil society associations due to the Coronavirus pandemic, leaving many of these on the brink of closure.

Enas Kamal is a freelance journalist in Egypt who has written about women's issues for Raseef22.

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko