By Hyacinth Mascarenhas
Omayma was paying for a crime she didn’t commit.
After taking out a loan to finance her sister’s trousseax, her father convinced Omayma to sign as a guarantor claiming it was “just a formality.” When he passed away, Omayma was left responsible to pay the price.
Unable to pay back her father’s E£ 7000 (about $1,140), Omayma was sentenced to three years in prison. “He has always been lucky,” Omayma said. “He died and left me the bill to pay – it cost me my freedom and my children too.
As luck would have it, Omayma would soon become journalist Nawal Mostafa’s first success story.
From journalist to humanitarian
Nawal Mostafa never dreamed she would start her own non-government organization.
After receiving a B.A. in media in 1972 and a diploma in journalism from Boston University in 1993, Mostafa worked as a foreign correspondent and headed the women’s investigative desk at al-Akhbar before becoming the editor-in-chief of Akhbar El Youm.
In 1990, Mostafa visted Al-Qanatir prison for women in Egypt to interview four Lebanese women who had been sentenced to death for drug trafficking. She left, however, with more than just an interview.
Shocked to find little children playing in the prison courtyard, Mostafa watched as they ran back to their mothers when they cried out in Arabic, “The guard is coming.” She soon learned that these children grew up within the prison walls with their inmate mothers.
“The irony of an innocent child, who should be free to explore the world and run carefree with no inhibitions, in a prison haunted me for days to come and became sort of an obsession,” said Mostafa. “I was keen to learn more about the mothers’ stories and found myself compelled to write them. I kept on writing and obviously became personally and emotionally involved in one of my stories – something that is not encouraged in journalism You need to keep your distance and set boundaries if you’re going to be objective. But this time, I found myself breaking the rules and letter my guard down…and for the last 20 years, I’ve been stuck with my one favorite story.”
Clearing debts, saving lives
Aiming to change the treatment of female inmates and their children living with them in Egypt’s prison system, Mostafa established the Children of Women Prisoners Association to help rehabilitate these women back into society, and upon release, lessen the stigma attached to them. Initially, the organization focused solely on charity by distributing food and milk, clothing, warm blankets during the winter and fans during the summer.
Soon Mostafa identified a specific group of female prisoners whom she calls “poverty prisoners” – women who were imprisoned due to debt and loans that they were unable to pay off.
Like many other countries in the Middle East, when a debt is not paid in Egypt, a complaint is filed with the police and the borrower is imprisoned until the money is repaid. The concept of imprisonment for debt has also drawn harsh international criticism from human rights groups across the globe.
“Throwing a penniless person in prison for a debt is not going to get that money back,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Putting someone in prison should be reserved for real crimes.”
In the Al-Qanatir prison, Mostafa said most cases of imprisonment for debt stemmed from illiteracy and extreme poverty.
“I talked to them and tried to understand what exactly put them in that awful fate,” said Mostafa. “A lot of them were illiterate and most of them came from very, very poor families. There was no awareness about them so they are an extremely neglected group in the society. So I came up with the term “Female prisoners of poverty” and that later became the name of my project.”
To shed light on this neglected population, Mostafa launched a media campaign through her own articles, columns and interviews on talk shows to “describe the problem, reveal the facts and raise awareness about these unspoken issues.” She soon launched the NGO called “Prisoners of Poverty” to help women settle their debts and get released from jail.
Usually dealing with women imprisoned for low and medium-cost loans, the NGO works to help release women who owe between LE 5,000 – 7,000.
On behalf of an eligible prisoner, lawyers at Prisoners of Poverty work with the bank lender to come to a settlement agreement, and then pay the settled amount with the help of donations to discharge the debt and then, start the legal process to get an acquittal and release the prisoner and her children. According to Mostafa, the process is tedious and time-consuming but “miraculous” when a prisoner is finally released.
In 2007, Omayma became the first of many female prisoners released through the assistance of Prisoners of Poverty.
“The prisoners of poverty, in particular, didn’t commit a crime in its truest sense,” said Mostafa. “They’re poor women struggling to keep their small businesses alive, to marry off their daughters or to buy items on credit. If for any reason they failed to pay the installment on time, delaying it by a month or two, their creditors press cases against them with no mercy. Some fell victims to their own ignorance and naivety…It just proves that debt is the slavery of the free.”
Balancing both passions
Balancing her work as author, columnist and editor-in-chief of Al Akhbar’s Ketab El Youm (Books Today) weekly and heading Prisoners of Poverty is no easy feat for Mostafa.
Visiting inmates in prison often requires official permission and can be easily revoked by the prison administration especially in the face of media criticism and unwanted publicity.
“There’s an arsenal of regulations and rules, permits to obtain, and a process to abide by,” said Mostafa. “As friendly as we are with prison authorities, even we still have to follow the system every time we go.” Continuous criticism of the prison system would have alienated her, she says.
“I wanted my job to advance, not deter, my mission. I was adamant to prove to them that I’m not the enemy. I was here to help, and I was desperate for their trust and acceptance. Together, we made a difference. Alone, I would have accomplished nothing. I treaded lightly in my coverage and realized you don’t have to scream and snarl to effect change.”
Removing the stigma
For many female prisoners, being released is rarely an end to their woes. Often faced with the “shame of imprisonment,” these women are shunned by society, their families, and potential employers and often find it difficult to start a new life outside of prison.
Continuing to assist women beyond their time in prison, the organization also helps women power through the legal processes and stigma of society by becoming economically empowered through education, employment and special training.
She is currently working on a new project called “New Life” to help women women become more educated about their personal finances and assist them in finding a place to live, get a job or even start their own business. Last year, her organization was selected as a finalist in the Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in the MENA Region competition, launched by Ashoka Changemakers and GE.
“Nobody is perfect,” said Mostafa. “Everybody makes mistakes and bad luck has played role in their lives. I want to try and change the mindset of society and show how these women are the real victims, not criminals.”
Aside from economically empowering former inmates, Mostafa says she often finds ex-prisoners plagued with low self esteem and aims to empower them psychologically as well – an important theme especially highlighted to inspire positive change during International Women’s Day.
“They see themselves as guilty and small because society has imparted this mindset into them,” said Mostafa. “They don’t believe they have power inside them that they can use to change their lives. I want to work to change that psychological attitude and help them believe that nothing is impossible. It needs a lot of patience, a lot of time and lot of hard work, but I never give up.”