The Crime of Poverty in Egypt

Nawal Mostafa’s organization Children of Female Prisoners Association (CFPA) has not only shed light on the formerly invisible population of female poverty prisoners in Egypt, but has transformed the public perception of these women and their children from criminals to victims of an unjust system.

Nawal Mostafa, Founder of Children of Female Prisoners Association 

Cairo, Egypt

Nawal Mostafa in her Cairo office decorated with awards and certificates recognizing CFPA's work. Photo by Audrey Lodes.

In almost every country, prisons are intentionally out-of-sight, housing the underbelly of society deemed too dangerous to fraternize with the general population. But, what if the crime committed is poverty, or being born within the wrong four walls?   

In 1990, Nawal Mostafa was a fresh college graduate working as a journalist for Al-Akhbar, one of Egypt’s largest publication houses. Nawal was tasked with interviewing a woman facing drug smuggling charges and, after obtaining government permission, she entered Qanater Women’s Prison for the first time. This experience changed Nawal’s life, not because of the story she intended to tell, but what she saw on her way out of the prison–children younger than two years old playing on the filthy cement floor of a make-shift playground.

Nawal learned that these children were living with their incarcerated mothers.

Shocked and desperate to understand how children were allowed to spend their formative years in such conditions, Nawal embarked on a journey that would eventually lead to founding her organization, Children of Female Prisoner’s Association (CFPA).  

In the following months and years, Nawal returned to Qanater countless times to speak to these mothers; she saw a pattern emerge. Almost all the women she encountered were incarcerated because of their inability to pay off a debt–some reportedly as low as 1,000 EGP (64 USD). To make matters worse, many were unaware that they were even taking responsibility for these debts, either because they were illiterate or swindled by a spouse or relative. Nawal explained, “As I listened to them, there was a tragedy in their stories because I found out that they are victims rather than criminals.” This population is not small–CFPA estimates tens of thousands of women share a similar fate. 

Nawal reflected, “I realized that a journalist is responsible for finding the story to write about, not the future of the people in the story. That day, I decided these children and their mothers were my responsibility.” This sense of responsibility resulted in a career shift to focus full-time on how to change the realities for female prisoners and their children in prisons across Egypt.  

CFPA’s strategy operates on several levels to better the lives of these women and their children. Through decades of awareness campaigns, CFPA has successfully changed the public perception of female poverty prisoners from criminals to victims of an unjust system. To stop the cycle of incarceration from debts, CFPA’s New Life Program teaches women new skills to be economically independent in order to not fall victim to aggressive loans again. On the legal level, Nawal and her team have introduced new regulations in prisons to improve their conditions while lobbying for the national law to change so that women debtors are not punished with jail time at all, and instead assigned community service.  

Scaling Deep: The Power of a Changed Narrative

Nawal and her organization CFPA have transformed female prisoners of poverty from criminals in the public eye to victims of an unjust system who deserve empathy and another chance. Before Nawal’s advocacy, this population was rarely afforded sympathy because of the widespread belief that they were guilty of a crime, which was reflected in the lack of attention they received in public discourse, policy, or from community organizations.  

Now, these women and their children who are in prisons for debts are no longer referred to as criminals, but as ‘gharemaat’ which means ‘female debtors’ in Arabic, and their plight is well known in Egypt. At Ashoka’s Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship (WISE), this form of impact is “scaling deep,” a strategy that transforms dominant attitudes and beliefs. Through shifting mindsets, value systems, and norms, such impact has a deep and long-lasting impact on a selected community and its future generations. 

Nawal sitting with Omaima, the first woman released By CFPA 2007. When Omaima’s father passed away, she inherited his debt of 8,000 LE ($500 USD) because she was guarantor of trust receipts. Photo by CFPA.

Over the past 30 years, Nawal and her team have crafted a new narrative for this population and lessened the social stigma they face. A journalist by training, Nawal is skilled in reaching wide audiences. Nawal and her team consciously use humanizing language during awareness campaigns to reframe public attitudes about this population. Nawal noted, “It’s very important to change the terminology and we do that in our media material. We say ‘female prisoners of poverty,’ she is not a thief or a killer.” CFPA utilizes multiple media channels to spread their message: CFPA’s Facebook page has reached over one million people, their magazine called “Eyes of the Future” allows women in prisons to write and edit their own stories, and a YouTube channel posts videos featuring women who have participated in CFPA’s livelihood projects. Finally, CFPA has produced five documentary films about these women’s experiences in prisons and the stigma they face upon release. 

Clearly, Nawal and her team’s advocacy is working, even President Sisi has uses the term “gharemat”  to bring awareness to this population. In 2018, the administration launched an initiative called “Prisons Without Debtors” which has resulted in the freeing of thousands of those behind bars for loans and debts —in the first year, 6,400 such individuals were released. According to Egypt Today, almost 30 million Egyptian pounds (1.9 million USD) have been allocated to this initiative, including social, economic, and educational programs to support this population. 

Additionally, CFPA introduced this issue to large community organizations like Misr El Kheir, who now have a program and funds dedicated to releasing these women and helping them learn new livelihood skills to ensure they do not fall victim to aggressive loans again. Since 2010, Misr El Kheir has raised enough funds from the public to bail out 86,000 women debtors.  

CFPA’s work does not end once women are released, however. Even before release, CFPA engages women debtors in their New Life Project that teaches women handcraft skills to gain employment and end the cycle of incarceration and debt. A sewing workshop was established in cooperation between the Ministry of the Interior and the Community Protection Sector to employ women inside Qanater prison to build skills to use upon release. In 2017, the New Life Factory was established to provide jobs producing textiles after leaving prison. The New Life Project does not only teach women livelihood skills, it also offers psychological rehabilitation that equips women with the tools to reintegrate into society.  

Nawal with one of participants in CFPA's New Life Project workshop opening inside Qanater prison with the poet Fatma Naoot. Photo by CFPA.

Scaling Up: Systemic Change Requires Legal Reform

Successfully shifting the public perception of female poverty prisoners in Egypt is only one part of the solution for female prisoners of poverty and their children. To end this cycle, Nawal and her team are lobbying for systemic change in the legal system.  

Firstly, CFPA has introduced new regulations in five female prisons that have resulted in more humane conditions for children and their mothers. Because of Nawal’s advocacy, there are now nurseries and designated spaces for children, and prison stipends for basic supplies like diapers and formula. With these landmark reforms, Nawal and her team at CFPA have improved the lives of over 10,000 women and children inside prisons (CFPA self-reported data). 

Secondly, releasing women from prisons is a key component of Nawal’s strategy but, for each woman released, Nawal realized that another entered the prison system. She and her team are lobbying to change the law so that women do not end up behind bars for small debts in the first place. To end the cycle of poverty-prisoners, CFPA has joined forces with 30 parliament members, 35 other NGOs, and 25 public figures to create a unified front to push for legislative change. They propose an alternative punishment for women who are unable to pay off debts such as community service. Nawal also reported that this cause is at the top of President Sisi’s agenda with 64 parliament signatures and 341 approvals. 

Nawal and her team have also changed the futures of children born in prison. Before her advocacy in 2008, children born within prisons were not issued birth certificates and as a result, they were legally invisible: unable to register for school, receive government benefits or services, or get a national ID. Nawal and her team collaborate with pro-bono lawyers to collect information to file appeals on behalf of these children. Through this initiative, they have registered over 500 children in the national system and issued them birth certificates.  

Success is a Changed Stereotype

Nawal recalled the controversy that her NGO caused in its early days. People asked her, ‘Why are you supporting criminals?’ But, Nawal knew this mindset could be changed through awareness and empathy. 30 years later, Nawal is still defending and fighting for these women to have a better life and is proud of her accomplishments. Upon reflection, Nawal said, “I am very proud I changed this stereotypical way of thinking for many people. I made an issue that was hidden behind the walls of prison visible to society.”

Nawal’s dream is a country without any children living in prisons and that women will not be in jail for debts or poverty. With her success in raising awareness for both the public and policymakers, it seems this dream may be in sight.  

By Audrey Lodes