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Sexual Violence Against Women in Egypt: Have We Stopped Listening?

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A small crowd gathered outside the Egyptian embassy in icy Mayfair last night.

Arabic chanting was interspersed with English - "We are not afraid, we will not be silent. Egyptian women, we are with you! We won't give up! We won't give in!" Banners bared images of women who were sexually assaulted while participating in mass protests. On the pavement, a roll of paper and some pens to write messages of solidarity to those who continue to go to Tahrir Square every day.

A small crowd, given the enormity of the issue. The London rally was one of 27 being held outside Egyptian embassies and consulates around the world yesterday to protest against violent sexual attacks against women in and around Tahrir - the focal point for activists wanting freedom and democracy in Egypt, where hundreds of unidentified men have taken part in attacks on women, grabbing, touching, groping and stripping off clothes. Calls for a global rally came after reports that a 19-year-old girl was raped with a blade there just weeks ago.

Last month the United Nations issued a statement expressing "great concern" after about 25 cases of sexual assault against women, some of extraordinary violence, during demonstrations marking the two-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpantiSH), a support network for targeted women in Egypt, reported 19 cases of sexual assault on January 25 alone.

But these stories barely made a dent in the Western media. At the London rally, demonstrators feared that the revolution is becoming a stale news item two years on.

"I think people are fed up with Egypt," said Sara, an Egyptian activist who was in Cairo at the beginning of the uprisings.

"It isn't much in the foreign media any more. Maybe they're just not aware of what's happening - the girls are silent, and there are issues about honour."

"And in Egypt, some people just want it to go back to normal."

There was a feeling of urgency among the demonstrators after foreign secretary William Hague called to end the 'culture of impunity' that allows rape to be used as a weapon of war just two weeks ago, but apparently failed to focus on the crisis in Cairo.

"I feel like William Hague and the British government have stopped listening in a way that they didn't when the revolution was happening," said Genvieve Dawson, who organised the Facebook group 'London Protest Against Sexual Terrorism Practised on Egyptian Female Protesters.' Dawson worked for an NGO in Cairo before returning to London last year.

"There are so many people in Egypt that are blogging, and posting, and videoing, and making us know what's going on. But I think we've stopped listening and I think the revolution isn't sexy any more."

While sexual harassment of women has long been a problem in Egypt, the issue was thrown into the international spotlight when CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally assaulted while covering celebrations in Tahrir two years ago.

But the international interest appears to have died down.

"The media comes and goes, it fluctuates like any news product," said Maher Mamoud, a Cairo-based journalist who joined the London protest.

"I'm not very optimistic this protest will achieve anything more than breaking the silence that has prevailed over the past couple of years about these practices.

"But the whole world should know, and I hope this will create pressure on the government, organisations and legislators to find a way to stop these practices. "

Many activists say the situation for women has deteriorated since President Mohamed Morsi assumed office in June 2012, and some believe that the attacks are coordinated and a form of political repression, with the aim of keeping half of the Egyptian population off the streets. Calls for Morsi to address the issue have so far been met with silence.

The Egyptian Constitution adopted following a public referendum in December ignored the rights of women and did not "explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, further entrenching discriminatory practices and attitudes," according to a report by Amnesty International.

And on Monday members of the Shura Council and the National Council for Human Rights in Egypt said that women taking part in protests must bear the responsibility of being sexually harassed, causing outrage among women's rights activists.

"On the streets it is getting much worse because nobody in the government is even placing a law that sexual attacks are illegal and implementing that law. The state media and the people who could be representing them are representing them not as victims, but that it is their fault," said Dawson.

"It's just unbelievable that at this stage in the revolution, after so many calls for social justice, that there are these coordinated attacks happening against women."

After two hours of chanting at the silent embassy, the protesters quietly dispersed. But the mood was upbeat.

"We probably won't see a huge change for a few decades, we have to start at grass roots level," said Sara.

"But I remain optimistic. If you get rid of women, you get rid of the spirit of the revolution."

Although small, the London chorus demonstrated that there is still a voice for women risking their flesh and livelihoods to fight for social justice in Egypt.

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