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Egypt gets open-source mapping to beat sexual harassment

Egypt is infamous both for the sexual harassment women endure and the government's lackluster response to the problem. Now, a private venture called HarassMap will allow women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment through text messages. Victims will receive a reply offering support and practical advice, and reports will be compiled into a larger map of harassment hotspots. The project is set to launch next year, and utilizes open-source mapping technology, which was also used earlier this year to help relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake.

According to the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, 83 percent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment, including groping, lewd comments, and stalking. Almost half reported harassment on a daily basis. And belying popular belief, harassment incidents do not seem to be linked to revealing outfits -- three-quarters of victims were veiled at the time of incident. There are currently no laws prohibiting harassment. Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, has even said that the media exaggerates the threat posed by sexual harassment.

The most recent statistics available place Egyptian mobile phone users at around 40 percent of the population and the female literacy rate at about 60 percent. While HarassMap could be important on a practical level for those women able to access it, those working on the project think it could change societal norms.

Rebecca Chiao, one of the volunteers behind the project told Britain's Guardian.

"In the last couple of years there's been a debate in Egypt over whether harassment of women on the streets is a serious issue, or whether it's something women are making up. So HarassMap will have an impact on the ground by revealing the extent of this problem. It will also offer victims a practical way of responding, something to fight back with; as someone who has experienced sexual harassment personally on the streets of Cairo, I know that the most frustrating part of it was feeling like there was nothing I could do."

U.S. cities, including New York and Washington, and entire countries like Britain and Australia, already have similar maps where citizens can report incidents by e-mail. Hollaback, first started in New York, is also in the process of launching an iPhone app.

CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images

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