CAIRO—Outside a room at Cairo University’s Kasr Al-Ainy Teaching Hospital, S.S., a woman in her 40s, sat at the door to the “Safe Women’s Unit,” waiting for her turn to enter for a second visit to follow up on her recovery from the effects of repeated physical and sexual violence inflicted on her by her husband.
S.S. learned about the Safe Women’s Unit from a nurse friend who works at the hospital. Her friend advised her to visit the clinic to help her recover from the physical and psychological effects of the violence she had suffered.
During her first visit, she underwent ultrasound and X-ray examinations to detect physical injuries from the violence, before she sat with a female obstetrician and gynecologist and a female psychiatrist to talk freely about her problem.
“I felt a great change in my psyche and an improvement in my physical health after my first visit,” she said. “It is enough that I got rid of the fear that overwhelmed me greatly.”
Urgently-Needed Support for Women
Cairo University’s Safe Women’s Unit was established late last year as part of a joint initiative involving a number of universities, the United Nations Population Fund in Egypt, and Egypt’s National Council for Women, an independent governmental institution. Besides Cairo University, the initiative also established specialized medical response clinics at Ain Shams, Mansoura, and Assiut public universities for dealing with cases of violence against women.
“We designed a medical protocol to manage victims of violence visiting the clinic, and to address the physical, medical and psychological consequences of gender-based violence,” said Ehab Soliman, a professor and chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Kasr al-Ainy Hospital.
According to Ehab Soliman, the Safe Women’s Unit at Cairo University has received dozens of women from various social backgrounds every day since its opening. This can be considered an indicator of a surge in the rate of various forms of violence against women, he said, and of women’s growing acceptance of the idea of going to a doctor to help them recover from the effects of domestic violence.
The Cairo University unit includes doctors specialized in family medicine, mental health, forensic medicine, and obstetrics and gynecology. The unit also includes a legal-assistance team, which observes strict confidentiality when listening to women who visit the clinic.
Millions of Women Affected by Violence
Around 7.8 million Egyptian women suffer from various forms of violence each year, perpetrated by their husbands, fiancés, members of their close circle, or strangers in public places, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the United Nations Population Fund, the National Council for Women and the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics on the economic cost of gender-based violence.
The new university clinics operate 24 hours a day, with a hotline designated to receive complaints from women subjected to violence, according to Maha Shaheen, head of the Medical and Humanitarian Support Committee at Mansoura University and one of the physicians in its medical response unit for dealing with battered women.
“We carefully listen to the battered woman in the first session in order to know the nature of her problem, before we start her treatment and refer her to the doctor in charge of her condition in the coming sessions,” Shaheen said. Women who visit the clinic also have the right to choose to pursue legal action along with the treatment, she said.
Domestic violence often leaves its mark on victims in the form of psychological and behavioral disorders, according to Shaheen. All doctors and nurses working in the clinics have been trained on how to deal with both psychological and physical effects of violence, she said. This is also true in cases of sexual harassment that require a forensic doctor to preserve evidence on the victim’s body, she said.
Follow-up assistance is not limited to care inside the clinic only, Shaheen said. The medical team continues to communicate with victims and manage their cases outside the hospital to facilitate their access to comprehensive services, and to overcome any difficulties they face in everyday life.
Appreciated Efforts, Yet Calls for More
Egyptian universities have recently witnessed with a steady stream of initiatives at all levels to combat gender-based harassment and violence.
In addition to the medical response units in university hospitals, universities have launched more than 20 units to decide on male and female students’ reports of sexual harassment on campuses and to provide support, protection and referral services to victims.
Azza Soliman, a human-rights activist and director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), applauds these activities but does not think they go far enough to play a tangible role in the issue of violence faced by women, both on campus and outside. (See a related article, “The Fight Against Sexual Harassment on Arab Campuses.”)
“The majority of women I know who are subjected to violence have not heard of these clinics. Without physical access to female victims, these initiatives do not seem to be truly feasible.”Azza Soliman
Director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance
“Usually, the doctors working at these units do not have sufficient training to deal with these cases,” she said in a telephone interview, speaking of university clinics in general. She believes many doctors are ignorant of the special protocols used in the treatment of battered women and are dealing with them as ordinary patients.
A human rights activist specialized in designing programs to combat domestic violence, Azza Soliman believes that many women still do not know about the presence of such clinics, which makes their establishment a mere formality.
“The majority of women I know who are subjected to violence have not heard of these clinics,” she said. “Without physical access to female victims, these initiatives do not seem to be truly feasible.”
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Soliman, who was among the winners of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in 2020, says that the developments she observes in combating gender-based violence on campuses are primarily in personal efforts and individual initiatives by female students who launch online blogs that counter conservative discourse against women, encourage women to speak up about what they have experienced, and provide a real follow-up of treatment methods in coordination with independent human rights centers. (See a related article, “Egyptian Universities Face Pressure to Better Protect Women From Harassment.”)
She does not deny the important role universities can play through the new Safe Women Units and other initiatives, especially with the presence of thousands of female students on campuses. But she calls for the adoption of broader communication policies so that universities actually become a safe place for women, whether they are students or employees both on campus and outside.