MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian government to address an "epidemic" of violence against women, citing reports of sexual assault it gathered during the 4-day mass protests of rival Egyptians that started Sunday, June 30.
A July 5 report from The Guardian pegged the figure at 169, with 80 women subjected to harrasment and rape on the night of Wednesday, July 3 alone.
It was just a day after an HRW article on its website cited reports that mobs assaulted and even raped at least 91 women during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
The Egyptian group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault and the women’s rights group Nazra for Feminist Studies helped confirm 51 of the attacks documented by HRW.
In the Guardian report, meanwhile, women's rights advocate Soraya Bahgat said the abuses have been so prevalent that Egyptian society has been desensitized to it. Bahgat herself reportedly escaped an attack.
She called the experience the "circle of hell" – referring to the strategy of groups of men who would look for women who are alone at the rallies and encircle them and start abusing them sexually.
"There's an absolute absence of any security forces in Tahrir, and also the crowd seems to have become conditioned to it," she said.
In an article on HRW's website, Joe Stork of HRW Middle East said the "horrific levels of sexual violence" are "holding women back from participating fully in the public life."
He noted that the cases highlight government's failure to own up to the culture of tolerating the abuse of the female gender.
“Impunity for sexual violence against women in the public sphere in Egypt is the norm,” he said.
Even before the oust-Morsi demonstrations, HRW has been documenting the problem of sexual assault in Cairo’s streets and particularly at protests. In the same article, it uploaded a new video that highlighted the stories of women who have been attacked sexually.
Warning: embedded video has sexual assault and rape triggers
A 30-year-old victim featured in the video said she was raped on November 23, 2012, for 90 minutes. Fifteen men attacked her and ripped her clothes. The number of her attackers increased to 100 in the process.
"At the height of the attack," she recalled, "I looked up and saw 30 individuals on a fence. All of them had smiling faces, and they were recording me with their cellphones. They saw a naked woman, covered in sewage, who was being assaulted and beaten, and I don’t know what was funny about that."
Stork said Egyptian women rarely report the attacks as "they have no reason to believe that there will be a serious investigation."
Bahgat echoes Stork's observation, stating that the real incidence of assault on women may be higher as most cases go unreported.
"A lot of people are unwilling to come forward, and because no one wanted to disturb the sanctity of Tahrir," said Bahgat. – Rappler.com