January ‘13
Insight Interview

January ‘13
Laila Risgallah
Laila Risgallah


Traditional Arab culture is very moral and religious, but in some of these countries, women are overlooked and poorly informed. As the contradicting phenomenon resumes, Insight interviews Dr. Laila Risgallah, a family counsellor and the founder of Not Guilty NGO for Family Development, to better understand the reasons of sexual harassment and abuse in Egypt as well was ways to abolish this activity through aiming programmes and campaigns.

How did the idea of forming an anti-sexual harassment campaign come about?

I have been broadcasting a television show called Live it Right, known as 'Han3isha Sa7,' which tackled teenager-related issues like pornography, children marriage, sexual and physical abuse. The show mainly wanted to endorse the value of women and fight the common Egyptian mindset taboos. Having been communicating with numerous figures and aggrieved people with awful experiences, I realised that sexual abuse in Egypt is a tragedy beyond imagination. Even worse is the mindset behind this phenomenon, where sexual harassment and abuse is considered a normal practice that people are expected to do and live with their negative effects for the rest of their lives. One out of four girls and one out of six boys have been abused at least once during their teenage phase. Needless to mention that children are usually prone to such activities whether from a relative or a stranger, which encouraged me to study and earn a diploma in the matter, to take an action. Most movements and NGOs offer help and support to those who get abused, but none seek to prevent it before it occurs. Not Guilty aims to criminalise sexual abuse in the eyes of the community by focusing on children's awareness to create a generation free from abuse.

What are the goals of this programme?

Our vision is to provide the best training, educational and prevention materials on sexual abuse through education, media and support programmes to abolish sexual abuse in Egypt within the coming decade. We train 200 people yearly, and expect them to train another 200 each, so that we reach millions in the coming decade. In the 3 years of the project, Not Guilty would have reached at least 60,000.

Tell us about the awareness campaign your provide.

Our target is training teachers, social workers, people dealing with youth, caretakers at orphanages, doctors, police officers, parents, teens and kids about abuse so that they in turn would be able to notice signs of abuse early on, to propagate the methods of protection and to react correctly to reported cases. We have made Not Guilty books, one for boys and one for girls for ages 3 to 10 years old, to teach children how to say NO. These books are colourful and entertaining to deliver the message in a good manner. By this, we don't wait till the abuse happens. We also provide episodes explaining who is more prone to abuse, who the abuser is, the signs and effects of abuse and how to protect ourselves and our children from abuse. The episodes are hosted by myself, and produced by the well know director of the movie called 678, Mohamad Diab, in cooperation with Magued El Kadwany and a number of doctors and UN representatives. We also do counselling of survivors of sexual abuse and its consequences.

Any future plans?

I offered a protocol to the Ministry of Education, to diminish sexual harassment through educational books for all school stages. Moreover, I would like to give courses to the teaching institutes so that teacher graduates from there would know how to act with children with no violence and how to react in case of student abuse. More importantly is to focus on public schools, who are victims of ignorance and culture taboos.

There is an article in the constitution that permits early age marriage. What do you think about it?

This article has not been confirmed yet, but they simply want to legalise child abuse and girl slavery. A girl is too young to carry these responsibilities, and so her childhood identity will be squandered. Such an experience will have a negative impact on her psychically, psychologically and spiritually. To begin with physical effects, her body is not ready for sex and sexual diseases are so common. She will definitely face severe health problems if she got pregnant between 12-16 years old. According to many researches, children who go through sexual intercourse during childhood are more likely to become homosexual! They also fail to distinguish between love and sex, and may try to overcome the abuse memories through drugs, alcohol, eating disorders or cutting themselves. Psychological problems will arise, as the abused person will have feelings of guilt and shame. They believe that they are responsible for these problems, because the culture points a finger at them saying 'You tempted me with your smile,' 'Your outfit is eye-catching, so you deserve it,' 'I abuse you out of love' and so on. Many married girls commit suicide or live with unexplained fears and nightmares, and even lose trust in all the people surrounding them. As men insist to blame women instead of carrying the responsibility of their failure to control their animal instincts, abused females either blame God for allowing this to happen to, or get closer to God so that God would forgive their faults.

Do you think that the number of unprivileged families who force their daughters to marry early will increase?

Yes, these have been happening extensively in poor governorates and slums, where they state in her birth certificate that she is older. Many families even sell their daughters to Arabs. Like I said, the law will legalise the slavery of girls.

In your opinion, what are the reasons for sexual harassment?

Around 30% of the harassers were initially abused when they were young. Another equal percentage of abusers are prone to excessive pornography, which shaped a wrong perception that women are nothing but objects. Also 98% of harassed women were abused regardless of their clothes. High percentages like these prove that it was never about what women wear, but merely the morals of the abuser. Abusive men fear to take charge of their criminal acts, at the same time, they don't want to control their animal desires. On the other hand, some girls are blamed for dealing with instable men who are either drunk or under the influence of drugs. Females should care for their safety and not put themselves in to situations where they know that there are high chances to be harmed.

Being active in busy streets with high chances of sexual harassment, do you think this phenomenon is increasing or decreasing?

Despite that the awareness increased, it is very hard to change the abuser habits. Anti-sexual abuse movements and NGOs are playing an imperative role on increasing the awareness on this topic, but they do not prevent its happening. We need to educate children about this matter in simple ways, so that we would criminalise sexual abuse in their eyes.

Why is sexual harassment so common in Egypt?

To be frank, closed communities, extremely religious people, and availability of pornography on satellites and the Internet, are the main factors of sexual harassment in Egypt. The number of pornography channels on the satellite is unbelievable. It is very easy for any child to access these terrible channels and videos that perceive women as sexual objects, and not as human beings.

How can we, as citizens, help in diminishing sexual harassment?

Abused girls need to report cases. The society force women to feel stigmatised and dishonoured for something that it is not their fault. And the stereotype will resume if women keep on hiding criminal acts from justice. Besides, we need stricter laws against sexual harassment, because not criminalising the abuser means that it is normal to abuse regardless of the psychological and physical problems caused by this act. Last but not least, we need to raise awareness to prevent generations from doing this sick behaviour.

By Christine Kassasseya