I didn’t plan to become an activist. I was a journalist. I’d visited Egypt’s Al-Qanater prison in 1990 to write a story on four female drug smugglers on death row and as I was leaving, I saw small children playing in the prison yard. I remember clearly seeing them for the first time and asking the prison officer: ‘Why are they here?’ I was shocked when he told me they lived there with their mothers.
There are about 200 children living inside Egypt’s six female prisons. The penal system allows imprisoned mothers to keep their children until they are two – it’s seen as a mercy to the women, but also for the children who need their mothers. In many cases though, there is simply nowhere for the child to go. If relatives refuse to take them once they turn two, they are often sent to one of Cairo’s orphanages.
Unlike other stories I’d covered, the children stayed with me. They were the reason I set up the Children of Female Prisoners Association (CFPA) in 1990. I felt they deserved a future. We try to help the kids living in prisons – and also once they have left – by providing care and protection as well as basic necessities like food, blankets, milk and access to medical care. With the support of the Ministry of Interior, we’re also hoping to offer educational programmes and counselling.
The children were my focus, so it wasn’t until 2007 that I discovered Egypt’s poverty prisoners. These are women sent to jail, often spending years in prison, for an outstanding debt that can be as little as EGP500 ($65). It can be hard to imagine that anyone can go to jail for less than $70.
The majority of these women have debts of not more than $1,000, after falling behind on repayments for domestic items, such as fridges or furniture. Each debt is given a separate penalty by the court, so the total term could be as much as 30 to 35 years.
What we need now is a change in the laws that turn these women into criminalsThey have very difficult lives. The prison gives inmates a portion of food each day, but it isn’t enough to live on. These women work for the richer prisoners, washing their clothes and cooking their food. In exchange, they get cigarettes they can use as currency to buy food and other items. Up to a third of women in Egypt’s jails are poverty prisoners; unable to raise the money they need to pay off their debts.
The first woman CFPA helped to free was Omayma in 2007. She’d served six months of a 3.5 year prison term for owing $1,000. I was able to raise enough money to pay the debt and her release was a miracle. We’ve since helped secure the release of more than 100 women, but many more need help. However, it is encouraging that President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems supportive of our efforts, recently setting free a group of 47 female prisoners.
My days are very full. I still work as a journalist for Akhbar El Yom, one of Egypt’s biggest newspapers, and I was an editor-in-chief until two years ago when I stepped back to focus on my charity work. Each day I spend several hours on my story for our weekly paper, before travelling to Al-Qanater, which is Egypt’s largest female prison. I visit the women there for four or five hours, often with a lawyer, to discuss their cases and their problems. Through CFPA, we help wherever we can. I feel I am responsible for these women, and for their children.
CFPA’s goal is to offer a better solution to our beneficiaries. We fundraise to provide necessities such as food and clothes, and we also offer training and counselling. Some women learn handicrafts and sewing while jailed, so they will have better job prospects once they are released. We’ve reached more than 1,000 women with our prison programmes, raising about $37,000 a year.
One of the biggest problems is the stigma these women face on release. They can’t find jobs, which is why I plan to launch a textiles factory next year – we have the funds to rent the building, but not yet for the machinery. We hope to employ 50 ex-prisoners initially; the graduates from our prison ‘incubator’, which prepares them for employment.
CFPA has also started a work-from-home project, giving sewing machines and materials to about 100 released prisoners. We sell the products on their behalf, to create an income for them. The ability to work and to secure money has a remarkable impact on these women and their self-esteem.
Twenty-five years ago, I was the first to really raise the issue of women’s prisons in Egypt. Now there are many NGOs working for these women, and this spotlight has ensured better treatment of prisoners. Things have improved drastically. What we need now is a change in the laws that turn these women into criminals. I dream of legal reform that will stop women being jailed for their small debts, and instead create a solution where the government repays the debt in exchange for the women doing community work.
It has been a turbulent time in Egypt recently, and that has been felt most strongly among the country’s poor. Still, I am optimistic for the future, and I won’t stop working to help them until I see real change.
Photo credit: CFPA