According to a notorious 2013 UN Report, approximately 99.3 percent of women in Egypt have stated that they were sexually harassed in one way or more throughout their lives. In an attempt to find a practical solution to a problem that almost every woman faces, 21-year-old medical student-turned-entrepreneur Shadw Helal created an app, dubbed Rescue, which engages the community to combat sexual harassment with the touch of a button.

The idea to create a sexual harassment rescue service for women first came to her when she received a disturbing phone call from a friend who was being followed by a raucous group of men. Helal stayed on the line with her friend until the men lost interest. Infuriated by her friend’s experience, Helal approached a developer and began working on the app the next day.

Rescue is a smartphone application that enables users to send a distress signal to volunteers within a one kilometer (~0.5 mile) radius who can then come to the aid of the victim. The distress call can be activated by pressing the on-screen ‘rescue’ button or by voice, which can prove helpful in situations where victims cannot access the on-screen button. Soon to be available for iOS devices, Rescue is currently available for Android and has English and Arabic language capabilities.

Rescue App screenshot

Screenshot of the smartphone application.
(CC: Rescue.)

Helal has spent about EGP 80,000 (USD 4,500) to jump-start the app, and participated in the Orange Startup Cup and IEEE’s app development competitions in the Middle East. She also recently qualified for the American University in Cairo’s incubator V-Lab’s pre-final round and qualified for WeMena’s top 200 startups. Helal launched a beta-version of the app in July 2017 and has simultaneously built a network of volunteers willing to help people in distress on Cairo’s streets. 

In an interview with Startup Scene ME, Helal expressed the importance of tapping into one’s environment when being harassed and not depending solely on personal connections in the event of an emergency. This kind of communal engagement has been conjured before in other initiatives looking to combat sexual harassment on Egyptian streets to compensate for the absence of responsive police in such situations. Helal added that the volunteers need not be men, but that women can respond to distress calls. In this way, both men and women can together engage in combating sexual harassment.

Ideas similar to Rescue have been developed elsewhere in the Middle East where, across the region, 37 percent of women have reported experiencing some form of sexual violence. Samia Haimoura, a Moroccan entrepreneur and founder of the Securella smartphone app, shares Helal’s desire to combat sexual harassment. Like Rescue, Securella enables users to send distress signals to an agent who can in turn help the person in question. But far from just acting as an SOS for victims of sexual harassment, Secuerella also allows users to report incidents of sexual harassment, creating a heat map of areas with precedent of sexual harassment, as well as safe roads. Started in Morocco, Securella is spreading to Tunisia and Egypt as well. 

Currently, a law criminalizing sexual harassment in Egypt can throw a harasser in jail for a minimum of six months and fine them up to EGP 3,000 (USD ~170). This, however, hasn’t stopped harassers from violating women (and men) on the streets. Other initiatives like HarassMap, which maps cases of sexual harassment and individuals who helped victims, and I Saw Harassment, a pressure group that monitors and documents sexual harassment crimes against women, have sprung up in recent years in an attempt to curb sexual harassment in Cairo and other cities across Egypt.

While these on-the-ground initiatives have been engaging communities and raising awareness, legislation, responsive police action and political will are still lacking. In New Delhi, which, like Cairo, has an alarming rate of women who report being sexually harassed, the government has passed a law requiring all taxi and rickshaw drivers to enrol in a gender sensitization class – a clear demonstration of political will to address a longstanding challenge. Needless to say, initiatives like Rescue App and Securella, among others, are just a couple of examples of the many ways that entrepreneurs are using technology to remedy urban challenges.

This article is commissioned by urbantech coworking space KMT House Cairo.

Rescue App combats sexual harassment