By Heba Kanso
CAIRO, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cairo was named on Monday as the most dangerous megacity for women by an international poll with women's rights experts saying the treatment of women in the Egyptian capital has worsened since a 2011 uprising seeking social change.
Cairo came out worst when the Thomson Reuters Foundation asked experts on women's issues in 19 megacities how well women are protected from sexual violence, harmful cultural practices, and about access to healthcare and finance.
Women's rights campaigners and commentators said women in Cairo faced daily harassment while a weakened economy and high unemployment since the uprising had eroded economic opportunities for women and seen health services deteriorate.
"The economy has become so bad in the last two, three years that we are suffering a setback in the thinking that women's issues are not a priority," said Omaima Abou-Bakr, co-founder of Women and Memory Forum, a non-government organisation set up to fight misconceptions of Arab women.
However Naglaa el-Adly, who is part of Egypt's National Council for Women, an independent governmental body, believes women's rights have improved - with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declaring 2017 as the "Year of Egyptian women".
"We have political will. This year, 2017, is the year for women. And everywhere, all ministries, all entities they are helping women to gain their rights," said el-Adly.
Data on violence against women in Cairo is hard to find but 99 percent of women in Egypt interviewed by the United Nations in 2013 reported sexual harassment and 47 percent of divorced or separated women reported domestic abuse.
Campaigners said successive governments since the uprising had put violence against women on the backburner, with authorities failing to acknowledge the extent of the problem.
An outcry over attacks on women near Cairo's Tahrir Square during al-Sisi's inauguration celebrations in 2014 did prompt a new law punishing sexual harassment, with at least six months in jail.
But campaigners said convictions were few and far between and violence against women in Cairo remained rife.
ECONOMY HURTS WOMEN
"Violence against women is a core issue," said Mozn Hassan, executive director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a non-government organisation providing legal, medical, and psychological support for victims of sexual violence.
"It is accepted as the problem of the woman - where she was walking, what she was wearing. It's not about her right to walk safely. Generally streets (in Cairo and outside the city) are not safe for women."
The faltering economy was also seen as a major setback for women in Cairo, a city whose 22.8 million population is forecast by a Euromonitor International report to grow by half a million this year, more than any other city in the world.
Egypt's deteriorating economic growth since the Arab spring has driven away tourists and foreign investors, and the nation's unemployment rate only dipped below 12 in the second quarter of 2017 for the first time since 2011.
Female participation in the workforce fell to 23 percent in 2016 from 26 percent in 1990, according to World Bank figures, while U.S. figures show the literacy rate of women aged over 15 is about 65 percent, compared to 82 percent for men.
"This is a poor country, going through many problems, economically and politically (and) the awareness about the importance of gender issues is suffering," said Abou-Bakr.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation survey found that Cairo ranked as the worst city when it came to protecting women against potentially harmful cultural practices.
Egypt has one of the world's highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) even though it was outlawed in 2008.
About nine in every 10 girls and women are subjected to the partial or total removal of external genitalia, according to a 2015 Egypt Health Issues Survey.
Egypt has also banned child marriage but about 17 percent of girls are wed by their 18th birthday and 2 percent before they reach 15, with experts saying progress on reducing child marriage has stalled and is even rising in some regions.
"Female genital mutilation still happens even though we have a law criminalising the practice. A lot of families believe it preserves the girl's chastity," said high-profile journalist and women's rights activist Shahira Amin, who campaigned against FGM until it was criminalised in 2008.
"It's these age-old traditions and social norms ... in every social class. My own mother has been cut and luckily I escaped the fate."
Lawyer Azza Soliman from the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance said the only way to change was to enforce the law and change "obsolete traditions" that degrade women.
"For me, law is very important, it is one of the tools for change, but it is not alone," Soliman said.
The survey of 380 people was conducted online and by phone between June 1 and July 28 with 20 experts questioned in 19 of the 31 megacities listed by the United Nations. The poll was only conducted in the largest city in each country.
(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)