Hivos International

Intisar el-Saeed: offering legal assistance to rape survivors in Egypt

The welfare workers were kind to her, gave her chocolate and great computer games. But nothing worked. She refused to speak. The 9-year-old ‘Sarah’ and her mother had fled to Cairo from the poor city of Asyut in the south of Egypt.

Having arrived in the capital, they asked for urgent legal aid at one of the welfare organisations. That is where the employees saw Sarah’s neat handwriting in one of her notebooks. The immaculate writing of a schoolgirl. It was a letter to God, written in utter despair.

Finally, her mother began to tell the story. Sarah had been sexually abused by an uncle - dozens of times. The family, and particularly the grandparents on her father’s side of the family, refused to believe this. They came up with a compromise: “We will build a house for you, and the uncle will leave the country.” Anything to avoid a scandal.

Sarah’s case found its way to lawyer Intisar el-Saeed’s desk at the Cairo Centre for Development (CCD). Intisar gathered the necessary evidence including a doctor’s report that confirmed that Sarah had been raped ‘more than once’. But to her astonishment, the Forensic Medical Authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Health came up with its own interpretation of the facts. Sarah had been raped, stated the authorities, but she had not lost her virginity.

According to the laws of the land, the serial rapist could have been sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment, but due to his absence from trial he was sent to prison for 5 years. Even after the court ruling, Intisar received threats from the family, “We will burn your house down!” Meanwhile, the uncle had gone into hiding somewhere. Sarah now lives in Cairo with her mother.

The CCD offers legal assistance to women; it campaigns for women’s rights and handles some two hundred court cases every year. These are all cases of women’s rights violations including sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence and kidnap cases. Egypt has an extremely poor reputation when it comes to protecting women’s rights. The lawyer is up to her neck in work.

Although article 11 of the Egyptian Constitution states that the state will protect women against all forms of violence, reality shows that this very state is doing its utmost to make the work of lawyers like Intisar increasingly difficult.

The young female lawyer is very concerned about whether CCD will continue to receive a work permit in the near future. She is worried about the current repressive political climate in Egypt. “The authorities are fighting a tough campaign against human rights organisations.”

The ‘Sarah’ case attracted much media attention in Egypt. Newspapers wrote about it, and Intisar was interviewed on a popular national television channel. “This case has caused quite a stir. People are finally starting to think about what women in Egypt face in their daily lives”.