Cases involving threats to share private pictures have been increasing around the world in recent years, mainly affecting women and girls
* Platform receives 250,000 appeals for help in first year
* Many victims reluctant to report crime to the police
* Initiative comes amid nationwide debate about gender abuse
By Menna A. Farouk
CAIRO, Aug 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Radwa, a 27-year-old Egyptian woman, said her blood ran cold when her ex-boyfriend threatened to send nude photographs of her to her parents in revenge for their break-up.
In socially conservative Egypt, the sharing of intimate images can have dire consequences for victims - from public shame to being thrown out of their homes.
"I was so terrified. I was slowly dying because of this," Radwa, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Cases of "sextortion" involving threats to share private pictures have been increasing around the world in recent years. Many of the victims are women and girls targeted by current or former partners seeking to humiliate or coerce them.
When her ex's threats began, Radwa confided in friends who pointed her to an online platform called "Qawem" or "Resist" in Arabic, launched a year ago by activists to help women fight sextortion.
"I contacted them via Facebook. They offered psychological support, took all the information from me, and did not ask for any photos - just the written threats. Then, they dealt very strictly with the blackmailer," Radwa said.
"Their approach in dealing with the case gave me strength," she said in a written response to questions via the platform.
Qawem was set up in mid-2020 by Mohmed Elyamani, a 35-year-old marketing manager and social media activist who wanted to help women confront the perpetrators and ensure the images are destroyed.
The crime can have tragic consequences.
Last year, Elyamani was contacted by a 17-year-old who was being threatened by her ex-boyfriend.
Elyamani urged her to go to the police, but the photographs were sent to the teenager's brother. A day later, she took her own life.
"It was really tough for me. I felt very sad for the girl. But this encouraged me to launch a platform that can help other women who may be in the same situation," Elyamani said.
Qawem went live at a time of social reckoning in Egypt about gender-based violence and abuse, with a high-profile social media campaign leading to the arrest of a man accused of raping and blackmailing numerous women.
Since then, new laws have toughened penalties against female genital mutilation (FGM) and sexual abuse, but as activists warn of patchy enforcement, grassroots initiatives like Qawem have sprung up.
The platform has 400,000 followers on Facebook and has received more than 250,000 appeals for help - a number Elyamani called "alarming".
Many of the complaints are from women whose former partners are using their photographs to seek revenge or pressure them into resuming the relationship.
In some cases, hackers break into the social media accounts of unknown women and seize intimate photographs to blackmail the victims for money or sex.
After studying a complaint, Qawem staff contact the perpetrator and seek to reach an agreement to avoid publication.
The organisation tells the blackmailer he will not be reported to the police on the condition that he sends a video of himself apologising, promises to erase the images and accepts legal responsibility if they are made public.
That approach has proven effective in 80% of cases.
"He deleted everything and since then he hasn't contacted me again," said Hend, 19, whose name has also been changed to protect her identity.
Police could not immediately be reached to comment.
When a settlement cannot be reached, Qawem helps victims go to the police to report sextortion, which can be punished by up to 15 years imprisonment in Egypt though convictions are rare.
Many victims are reluctant to press charges, despite laws aimed at preserving the anonymity of gender-based abuse victims.
"They're afraid that officers will see them as bad people, not realizing they are victims," Elyamani said.
Egyptian lawyer Hani Sameh said that of the 15 sextortion cases he has worked on, 12 opted not to go to the police. Some were girls aged under 18, who cannot file a complaint without a legal guardian.
"This really makes it hard for the girl because even if she has the courage to report it to the police, she cannot do this without her family's support," Sameh added.
Elyamani aims to turn the platform into a registered institution that can offer legal and psychological support to victims, possibly forming partnerships with the police and government agencies.
The National Council for Women, a government body that oversees women's issues, was not available for comment.
"Now is ... the right time to push for more social awareness about a topic like sextortion, which isn't talked about a lot in such a conservative society," Elyamani said.
"We hope Qawem will play that role, and help hundreds or even thousands of girls understand that the blackmailer is the one who should be held socially and legally accountable - not her."
(Reporting by Menna A. Farouk; Editing by Maya Gebeily and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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