ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In the midst of the turmoil that Egypt has faced in the past few years there have been shocking acts of public sexual violence against women. We're going to meet a woman who's been trying to respond to that problem. NPR's Michele Kelemen has her story.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When the Hosni Mubarak regime was toppled, Kholoud Saber Barakat thought this was a chance for a young woman like herself to get more involved politically, but she quickly shifted gears as sexual violence spiked and political rallies became too dangerous for women. Barakat, who was trained as a psychologist, decided to start a program to help victims of gang rape and mob sexual assaults.
KHOLOUD SABER BARAKAT: It's sad enough these kinds of events happen to everyone. It's not related to specific class. It's not related to specific age. We have women who's actually 60 years old and we have girls who are nine years old.
KELEMEN: Barakat, who's with the Nazra Institute for Feminist Studies and the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, says in some cases police were unable to protect women. In other cases, they were complicit in sexual violence and for a long time, she says, she and other activists were accused of exaggerating the problem.
BARAKAT: So we had a very hard job trying to at least to prove to the society and to the state that it's happening. And it is that bad and it is that ugly and we need to face it.
KELEMEN: Barakat spoke to NPR at the Newseum here in Washington, where she received an award this week from the advocacy group Human Rights First. She says the new government at least acknowledges the problem of rampant sexual violence in Egypt. It's taken some steps to respond by putting in place new law, though it remains unclear if they'll be enforced. And at the same time, she says, the authorities in charge now, who overthrew Islamists last year, are cracking down on civil society groups like hers.
BARAKAT: The last few months were terrible. The kind of new laws that are extremely restrictive, so hundreds of people who have been arrested or thousands of people who have been arrested and persecuted - the attack on civil society is attack on journalism and media.
KELEMEN: The State Department's point person on human rights, Tom Malinowski, was asked about Egypt when he spoke to the same group that gave Barakat an award. Malinowski says the U.S. is, quote, "concerned and distressed" about the crackdown on activists in Egypt.
TOM MALINOWSKI: It troubles us because we believe in human rights and we had hoped for something better after the Tahrir Square revolution, as did many Egyptians. But it also, frankly, troubles us because we do have a core interest in partnering with Egypt successfully to deal with shared security threats, including the threat of terrorism.
KELEMEN: Kholoud Saber Barakat says the U.S. needs to speak out more against this political crackdown even as it seeks a stable Egypt for geopolitical reasons.
BARAKAT: Fighting terrorism is something that had to be happened however it doesn't mean at all that the Egyptian government needs to close a public space and that's what they are trying to do now.
KELEMEN: The 29-year-old is working on her PhD now and continuing to offer support to rape victims in Egypt, but every day, she says, she worries that groups like hers are getting shut down and activists thrown in jail. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.