Making Cairo safer: Small gestures add up

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
May 16, 2019

Around 20 million people currently live in Greater Cairo. And of these, about 60% live in what are best described as informal and very densely populated urban areas.

Life in these neighborhoods, which we visited on a recent trip to Egypt, can be harsh, especially for children. Policing is light, public areas are not well lit and safe spaces for children to play outside are rarely available. These factors, coupled with a large transient population, facilitate criminal behavior in these neighborhoods and create an unsafe environment, particularly for girls. Among the main concerns of both parents and girls in these neighborhoods is sexual harassment and assault.

In 2014, the government of Egypt took the important step of issuing a decree making sexual harassment a crime. Until that time, Egyptian law did not have a definition for sexual harassment. Under the new laws, harassers face six months to five years in prison.

The decree was welcomed by advocates in a country where a 2013 United Nations study showed nine out of 10 women experienced some form of sexual assault, ranging from minor harassment to rape. Sexual harassment is not unique to Egypt. According to a survey of global experts in 22 cities sponsored by Plan International, sexual harassment and assault is the No. 1 safety risk facing girls and young women across the world.

In light of both the opportunity that the 2014 law created and the reality under which many girls in these informal neighborhoods were living, Plan International USA collaborated with Plan International Egypt to fund a program called Safer Cities for Girls. The program has been underway since 2014 and includes several components that are centered around supporting girls in the community to become agents of change, as they seek to transform their neighborhoods into safer places for all children.

The global Safer Cities for Girls project is a collaboration between Plan International, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme and Women in Cities International, created with the overarching goal of building safe, accountable and inclusive cities with and for adolescent girls. In addition to programming in Egypt, Plan supports Safer Cities for Girls programming in Delhi, India; Hanoi, Vietnam; Honiara, Solomon Islands; Kampala, Uganda; Lima, Peru; Nairobi, Kenya; and multiple cities in Australia and the United Kingdom.

We met Soaad in one of the largest informal settlements of Cairo. An eighth grader with a 300-watt smile who spoke animatedly through an interpreter, she had enough energy to power a small city. She told us how she became interested in a program that sought to provide girls in the community with information about their rights under the law. The program also trained girls on advocacy and facilitation skills, so they would feel capable of not just identifying community needs but addressing these needs with local authorities.

That program? Safer Cities for Girls.

Safer Cities for Girls in Cairo has launched a number of initiatives to make neighborhoods safer, all developed and led by the community in collaboration with the community development association. Girls like Soaad have helped mobilize people to pick up garbage (heavily littered neighborhoods provide places to hide for those who wish to do harm) and advocate for infrastructure needs like a safe space for girls and boys to meet and play.

Several of the Safer Cities for Girls initiatives include having boys and girls work and play together — not a commonplace occurrence in many conservative communities, where work and play is often segregated by gender. Integrating boys and girls into common programs, while challenging social and cultural norms, is known to have an important positive influence in shaping how boys view and value girls and how girls learn to interact with boys. With the support of Plan, girls and boys in the community worked on soccer skills together and played a coed game, a major accomplishment because soccer, or football, as it is known here, is seen as a “man’s sport.”

One of the more interesting efforts to transform neighborhoods has been focused on the “tuk-tuk” drivers. Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled vehicles popular in places like Cairo. Their shape makes it possible for the driver to take his (all tuk-tuk drivers are male) passengers through the narrow alleyways that characterize this community.

But these men can also be the source of violence and aggression, and girls are often the most vulnerable to this behavior. With Plan’s support, the community development association and youth engaged this group of men through games and theater. The men even collaborated on a play about their dreams and hopes that the community attended.

Treating the tuk-tuk drivers as a part of the community helped to create trust and began to change what had typically been a threatening and dysfunctional relationship. One theater event does not transform an entire cultural dynamic that all too often denigrates the values of women, but it is a start.

Soaad sees the change with the tuk-tuk drivers and believes more change is possible. She does not feel powerless, for her possibilities are vast. When we asked Soaad what she wants to be, she said she is still weighing options: actress, advocate or politician. She is no longer a victim, but a girl who wants to see a better world and is working to make it a reality. Plan is engaging more than 700 youth in Cairo’s informal neighborhoods. They, in turn, are expected to engage with parents, teachers, peers, community leaders and local authorities. As of May 2019, the Safer Cities for Girls program aims to directly and indirectly touch more than 20,000 lives and help transform the prospects of the inhabitants of Cairo’s informal neighborhoods.

Given the millions that live in communities like these, you might say it’s a drop in the bucket.

But it’s a start.