Boys are getting involved in a project to ensure girls' safety in a Cairo community where rates of sexual harassment are alarmingly high.
According to UN figures, 99% of Egyptian girls and women have experienced sexual harassment. In the Ezbet Khairallah slum where Plan International Egypt works, it’s a serious problem which girls are often blamed for – it’s seen as their fault because of their clothes or behaviour.
Since 2015, the Safer Cities project has worked with around 400 boys and men to challenge harmful attitudes towards harassment and to promote healthy, safe interactions between boys and girls which foster a culture of mutual trust and respect.
Ahmed, 17, admits he used to harass girls. In Khairallah, cat-calling or touching girls is common among men and boys and rarely something to be ashamed of. Many believe girls and women actually welcome harassment, especially if they leave the house without a man or without a head covering.
But Ahmed won’t be harassing girls again. Since he joined Safer Cities, he’s experienced a major change in attitude.
Now, I treat [girls] like sisters. If I see someone harassing a girl, I protect her.
“Before I used to perceive girls differently,” he says. “I used to harass them when I saw them in the street, thinking they had loose morals. But now, I treat them like sisters. If I see someone harassing a girl, I protect her.”
The weekly boys’ club Ahmed attends works hard to challenge the harmful gender norms around harassment in Egypt. Using sport and the arts as a teaching aid, it provides a safe space where boys can talk openly and explore the reasons why they harass girls and often behave badly towards girls and women.
“Engaging boys as role models and supporters of girls and young women is so important,” says Dr Jacinthe Ibrahim, programme manager at Plan International Egypt.
“Boys often need to talk to other boys to realise the impact of harassing girls. Sometimes they don’t realise the hurt they are inflicting – they don’t think of harassment as a form of abuse. Safer Cities helps them to realise the harm it causes when, for example, girls are forced to drop out of school because of harassment.”
Mohamed, 16, has learned about girls’ rights through the Safer Cities programme.
“Boys in Cairo typically treat girls quite badly,” says Mohamed. “They don’t allow their sisters to go to school or to go out by themselves. They don’t even allow them to express their opinions.”
Before he joined Safer Cities, Mohamed was among them.
“I used to think about girls differently,” he admits. “I never used to allow my sister to go out – I used to tell my dad to beat her when she did. I used to stop her from getting involved in conversations with my parents and tell her she should stay at home once she finished primary school.”
There is clearly discrimination against girls in my community
“Through Safer Cities, I learned about girls’ rights,” Mohamed says. “I learned that girls have the right to express their opinions. I learned that girls the same right as me to take part in activities. I learned that girls have the right to receive an education and to be able to walk down the street safely.”
Now Mohamed feels frustrated by the attitudes he sees among boys and men who don’t take part in the project.
“There is clearly discrimination against girls in my community,” he says. “Boys are allowed to do anything they like. They can go out, they can go to school for as long as they like, they have more freedom. Girls are kept inside and forced to drop out of school early.”
“I hope one day girls will be able to play a full role in society,” he says.
“I often feel bad when I walk around the streets in Khairallah because I see boys and men harassing girls,” says Hassan, who has been taking part in Safer Cities for the past 6 months.
He didn’t always feel that way. “Before taking part in Safer Cities, I used to think of girls as inferior and that I was better than them.”
As part of Safer Cities, Hassan attends a weekly boys’ club he has the opportunity to interact with girls’ club members. Now he counts several girls among his friends, Hassan thinks it’s deeply unfair that girls in Cairo are treated so differently to boys.
I hope my sister and her friends will grow up to feel safe while they’re out and about
“Parents allow their sons to go out late at night, even if it’s 1 am, but they never let their daughters go out,” he says. “If there’s a picnic, the family will encourage their boys to go and play in the park but the girls get told that playing is not for girls, that they need to keep still.”
Hassan has a 5-year-old sister and he has high hopes that she’ll have a life free from harassment when she’s older.
“I hope my sister and her friends will grow up to feel safe while they’re out and about,” he says.
Hassan’s mother, Marwa, has noticed a big transformation in her son since he joined Safer Cities.
“Soon after he joined the project, I saw my son standing up for a girl who was being harassed,” she says. “He asked the boy to stop what he was doing and I was so proud.”
“Safer Cities is trying to do something good by teaching children that harassment is wrong. It’s creating a new generation who will be able to eliminate harassment from our communities.”
Learn more about how young people are getting involved in creating Safer Cities for Girls.