Amid a military seizure of power from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Human Rights Watch released a statement this morning condemning the "horrific levels of sexual violence against women in Tahrir Square," and asked Egyptian officials and political leaders to do the same.
Egyptian anti-sexual harassment groups, the report said, have stated that at least 91 women have been sexually assaulted or raped in Tahrir Square in the last four days of protests.
The Egyptian group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment is operating in and around Tahrir wearing white t-shirts with red writing, and run a hotline for victims of sexual assault and can be contacted directly on Twitter under the handle @opantish.
Many attackers have been armed with sharp and dangerous weapons, the report added. In some cases, women have been "beaten with metal chains, sticks and chairs," raped with "sharp objects," requiring surgical attention, and attacked with knives.
"It started in the middle of the street," Karim Massoud told Human Rights Watch, describing an attack he witnessed. "The girl got pushed over to the Arab League building against the fence. People were interfering, there were a lot of weapons: whips, belts were being used a lot, wooden sticks, batons, and some sort of liquid they poured from a pot. It grew to at least 40 people. It was very violent."
Attackers have also been seen assaulting other women and activists for attempting to rescue the victims, or pretending to be assisting in the victims' rescue.
"Survivors and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some of the men claiming to help the women during the attacks were in fact taking part, further disorienting victims, who could not assess who was in fact assisting them," the report said.
"The rampant sexual attacks during the Tahrir Square protests highlight the failure of the government and all political parties to face up to the violence that women in Egypt experience on a daily basis in public spaces," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "These are serious crimes that are holding women back from participating fully in the public life of Egypt at a critical point in the country's development."
Anti-sexual harassment groups are seeing large numbers of attacks on women despite an anti-sexual violence law drafted and submitted to Egypt's cabinet and president in June, and the creation of a special unit to address violence against women, which is comprised of female police officers, announced by the Interior Ministry in May.
HRW also provided details on trends they have identified, based on survivor and witness accounts. Volunteers with the group have so far intervened to protect and relocate 31 women in cases of sexual assault.
"It appears that the attacks have tended to follow similar patterns," the report said. "Typically a handful of young men at demonstrations single out a woman and encircle her, separating her from her friends. During the attacks – which have lasted from a few minutes to more than an hour – the number of attackers increases and they grope the woman's body and try to remove her clothing. The attackers often drag the woman to a different location while continuing to attack her."
Egyptian feminist group Nazra for Feminist Studies released a statement today as well, condemning the reaction from authorities on the attacks. The statement was signed my seven groups including the Operation Anti Sexual Harassment, Tahrir Bodyguard and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
"Sexual attacks that took place in the past few days were preceded by earlier incidents of sexual violence which indicated grim forebodings several months ago," the statement said. "In November 2012, gang rapes were committed amidst disregard from official and unofficial bodies. The assaults in November 2012 and January 2013 targeted women demonstrators, passersby, and female volunteers in field groups intervening in situations of sexual assault and rape."
The severity of the attacks has since grown, the statement added, and the groups involved "deplore the fact that investigations into the documented cases of gang rapes have not taken place."
The assaulted cases that started taking place on June 30 have had a similar response from authorities, Nazra said. With the blame being placed on women for "being involved in such circumstances" in the first place.
In response to reports on sexual assault, the International News Safety Institute has released contact information for volunteer organizations like Operation Anti Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard, as well as a series of tips for women in Tahrir Square to follow.
Below are a few INSI tips to consider:
• Know Tahrir Square. Use a map if necessary, and plan escape routes
• Remain in groups—no single woman should find herself in the crowd alone
• If you do not speak Arabic have a translator with you
• Leave the square before dark
• Avoid certain locations around the Square—especially at night. Stay clear from areas around the Hardees and KFC restaurants, the Arab League building and Talat Harb and Mohamed Mahmoud streets
• Women should take care to dress conservatively, wearing loose-fitting clothing that cover the body from the neck, to wrists, and ankles. Wearing a one-piece swimsuit underneath clothing may also add protection
• Wearing a lightweight gilet enables a woman to place batteries or notebooks in chest pockets for protection. Backpacks and large bags should also be worn across the chest, rather than back, for added protection