Why you should care

Because women are not safe on the streets.

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Women get sexually harassed the world over, but in Egypt, the statistics are particularly unnerving: 99.3 percent of Egyptian women report experiencing some form of sexual harassment, from verbal abuse to physical assault, according to a 2013 U.N. study. For Shadw Helal, a 22-year-old medical student at Cairo University, the problem turned personal last year when a friend was walking in the city and was suddenly surrounded by six men. She managed to run away, but the fear lingered for weeks.

Moved by the incident, Helal decided to create Rescue, a mobile app women can use to issue alerts when they feel unsafe, summoning rescuers to come to their aid.

“I felt very sorry for my friend and thought about what if this happened to me, I may not be able to manage the situation alone,” Helal says. She was aware of an app aimed at fighting harassment called Street Pal, which allows users to notify a trusted contact in threatening situations, but Helal wanted to go broader by notifying not one person but a group of volunteer rescuers in the vicinity. After partnering with a mobile developer friend and conducting market research, she launched her self-funded app and made it available for Android phones.

The app invites users to sign up as a woman seeking protection or as a rescuer. (Female users are automatically set as rescuers too because, as Helal says, “if you ask for help, you’d better provide help.”) For men to sign up as rescuers, they must first scan their IDs to discourage potential predators from using the app.

For now, the Rescue app covers more than 200 square miles of Cairo, called the “most dangerous megacity for women.”

Once registered, any woman who feels unsafe on the streets can open the app on her phone and either press a button or use a voice command to send an alert to the nearest rescuers (using GPS technology). For now, Helal explains, the app sends alerts to people within a 2-kilometer radius, but as the number of users and rescuers grows, the distance from user to respondent will decrease.

As soon as a rescuer accepts the request for help, the woman is notified, and the respondent sees a map showing her location. There are no guidelines instructing rescuers what to do if the harasser is still there when they arrive: “We can’t say to them what to do because it could be illegal. But we may create guidelines in the future written by a lawyer,” Helal says.

Launched in October, the app currently has over 3,000 registered users — most between the ages of 18 and 35 — and about one-third are male rescuers. The majority of users are concentrated in downtown Cairo, Dokki, Shubra, Nasr City, Heliopolis, Maadi, Helwan and other sections of Giza.

Admittedly, 3,000 is a tiny number in a city of 9.5 million, but it’s a start. “It won’t solve the problem but it will reduce it,” says Helal, whose focus is raising awareness of the threat women face in their everyday lives as much as exposing and punishing harassers.

In 2014, an amendment was added to Egypt’s penal code imposing jail terms of no less than six months and/or fines of LE3,000 to LE5,000 ($170 to $290) on anyone found guilty of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the law is rarely applied because many women are reluctant to speak out in a society that promotes silence over the possibility of scandal. In 2016, for instance, only 116 cases of sexual harassment were reported. The number more than doubled from the 51 cases reported the previous year, but the statement released by Egypt’s Administrative Prosecution Authority acknowledges that the figures do not accurately reflect the extent of the problem because too many women fail to file reports.

For now, the Rescue app covers more than 200 square miles of Cairo, called the “most dangerous megacity for women” in a survey conducted in October by Thomson Reuters Foundation. But as Sawssan Zaki, a writer for Women News Network, points out, women being harassed on city streets need help fast. If someone feels threatened, “she will need immediate help and may not be able to press a button and wait for a rescuer who may be as far as 2 kilometers away.”

Zaki also notes that while many Egyptians have mobile phones, not everyone uses Android. “It may be a good idea for some women,” Zaki says, “but how will it benefit old or poor women who can’t use or don’t have a smartphone? I believe that we still need to fight sexual harassment on the ground rather than via mobile technology.”

But mobile technology exists, even if it is imperfect, and a 2017 report found that there are more than 100 million mobile subscribers in Egypt, up from 96 million in June 2016. Included in that number, however, are people using older cellphone models that lack smart technology.

Still, Helal believes Rescue will benefit Egyptian women, with or without smartphones, simply by raising awareness of the risks they face in public — and the need for others to intervene to protect them and devise other, better solutions.

“As long as there is no intervention, there is nothing new,” she says, adding, “I’m trying to change the mentality of people and the way they think toward sexual harassment.” The problem may be rampant, she says, but it shouldn’t be passively endured, or condoned.

Mariam Roushdy, a 32-year-old Rescue user, says the app makes her feel safe when she’s alone in public because she can summon help wherever she might be. “Many people thought about making applications that help us choose restaurants or find better transportation options,” Roushdy tells OZY, “but no one thought about women’s safety like Rescue.”

Looking toward an idealized future, Helal imagines someday women will no longer need her app. But for now, she is preparing to launch an IOS version.

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