Nawal Mostafa is changing the perception of female prisoners and their children as she sheds light on an unseen population—“poverty prisoners.” Nawal is improving prison conditions for them and changing policy to help rehabilitate former inmates into society.
The New Idea
Nawal is organizing the first efforts in Egypt to change the treatment of female prisoners as well as their young children living in prison. She has identified a special group of female prisoners whom she calls “poverty prisoners,” they are imprisoned not necessarily due to a criminal record but because they had become victims of poverty and debt with loans they were unable to pay. Nawal’s work aims to not only improve conditions in female prisons, but to help rehabilitate inmates and their children during their term and lessen the stigma attached to poverty prisoners on release.
Nawal has successfully navigated the prison system—one of Egypt’s most difficult institutions to penetrate—to implement new laws and regulations in female prisons. Moreover, by breaking the barrier between the outside world and the prison, she is paving the way for other citizen organizations (COs) to enter the prison and provide assistance to this invisible population. Nawal has successfully implemented reform within the prison and legal system, including an agreement with the courts to grant a special provision to the law—in the case of poverty prisoners—cases can be revisited and appealed after a person has been convicted. This applies to cases with a minor infraction and no prior criminal record and creates a precedent that can be applied to any prisoner.
Nawal is leading policy reform efforts, while changing the public’s perception that all prisoners are alike, and connecting women with interventions to address their poverty needs before it results in further imprisonment. Nawal has designed a process for family reconciliation with prisoners one year before their release to ensure a safe integration into society after release. With the transition in Egypt’s government and a new constitution, Nawal’s policy work is crucial and her contribution to public discourse has already stimulated policy reform and spread cultural awareness on an issue that was once hidden from the public. Her work is being widely replicated in Egypt’s female prisons and has received significant attention throughout the Arab world.
Like other developing countries, Egypt does not uphold the Standard of Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners according to international law. Prisoners of Egypt’s nine all-female prisons live in overcrowded conditions with other inmates, i.e. sleeping on a ten-square foot dirty cement floor without running water and little light. Poor ventilation causes skin infections, such as scabies, that spread easily. Other respiratory, chest, and stomach infections are also common.
Complicating the harsh living conditions within Egypt’s female prisons, there are approximately 3,200 incarcerated women who are pregnant or are the mothers of young children. The Egyptian prison system permits children to reside in women’s prisons—in the same living conditions—until the age of four. There are no special accommodations provided for pregnant inmates or those living with children. Furthermore, in many prisons, mothers are forced to use their own resources or those of family members to procure items such as food, medicine, milk, clothing, and blankets. These mothers and children literally live in extreme poverty within the prison.
After the children of the prison turn four they cannot stay even if there is no stable family to receive them. They are required to either live with a family member or are placed in an orphanage until the mother is released. Before Nawal’s work, the children did not have birth certificates and were not registered in the system, so were unable to access any basic rights such as healthcare or education. It is often difficult for these children to integrate back into society. Many end up living on the streets or are picked up by gang leaders who force them into illegal activities.
In the early 1990s, Egypt’s prison system allowed children to stay in the prison with their mothers until the age of two. At the time, nearly 700 children between the ages of 0-2 were living in prisons and an estimated 2,500 children, ages 2 to 15, were living in orphanages, on the streets, or in extreme poverty because their mothers were in prison. Today, these numbers have increased but there are still an unknown number of female prisoners and children living in prison. These figures are not released by the government so as to silence the problem and reduce any pressure on the government to attend to it. Children living inside prisons under these harsh realities are literally invisible to the public.
Conditions within female prisons are often worse than male prisons because of the additional level of stigma placed on female inmates. Not only are they considered criminals but are often branded as prostitutes and threats to society; there is moral judgment placed on female prisoners; i.e. blame for having been involved in an illicit activity. Thus, it is difficult for women to be supported by family or a community while serving a prison sentence. The majority of female prisoners in Egypt, however, are serving terms due to unpaid loans or petty misdemeanors related to poverty, and few have a prior criminal record. When released, women face severe social stigma and still find it difficult to receive support from friends and family. Without a job or means to care for their family, they remain in poverty and many return to prison.
Working to expose prison violations has historically been challenging; one must work under a police state with state institutions and no access to prison records. It is a neglected societal topic and needs to be on the government’s agenda.
Nawal created a three-tiered systemized approach to tackle the challenges faced by poverty prisoners and their reintegration to society. First, she works directly with female prisoners and prison authorities inside correctional facilities to improve their conditions. Second, Nawal raises awareness about female prisoners and their children to reduce societal stigma. Third, she is changing laws and regulations inside and outside the prison.
During former President Hosni Mubarak’s term in the 1990s, Nawal embarked upon Egypt’s prison system, which few people have gained access to and statistics are unknown. There is no access to any public records on prisons. After entering Al Qanater prison for the first time to interview a prisoner, Nawal persisted for four months in negotiations with the Ministry of Interior to allow her re-entry until she gained permission to enter on a regular monthly basis, which must continually be renewed. With determination to work intensely on the conditions inside the prison and exposing system failures, Nawal maneuvered her way in to the prison by telling authorities she was entering for charitable reasons. During that time, she spoke with the women about their stories, their life circumstances and the choices they made to now be in prison. Based on the data Nawal collected, she categorized them into different segments according to type of case and specific needs. She discovered that nearly 40 percent of the female prison population in Al Qanater were there due to unpaid loans their husbands convinced them to sign or black market merchants, who apply high interest rates and often trick the borrower in to signing for amounts without explaining the risks.
After identifying the basic needs of the prisoners and strategies to address them, Nawal approached the Ministry of Interior and prison authority insisting to secure continuous permission to enter the prison with supplies and other interventions. She also exposed the shocking reality inside the prison to the public, while presenting a different picture of these women and attracting support and funds. Nawal set her first precedent in prison regulations when she entered the prison with supplies. Formerly, prison regulations specified that only family members were allowed to bring supplies, and never had a CO been allowed to deliver services or supplies. Nawal pushed the public to read the stories of women, mothers, and children through a different lens. She is the first to address the rights, conditions, and context of non-political prisoners, in addition to shining a light on female poverty prisoners. The public response and support sparked Nawal to found Children of Women Prisoners Association.
By adding a monthly visit to Al Qanater prison and others to her schedule, Nawal quickly identified a specific course of action to follow to begin making changes on the ground. Upon discovering that children were dying at a rate of 40 babies per month, without any documentation of their life or death, Nawal tracked the numbers and convinced the prison of the need to keep records. Once the babies were registered, the prison was compelled to supply additional food rations, vitamins, and milk instead of sharing an adult portion with their mother.
Nawal began to change the dynamic of the prison by generating regular traffic in and out of the prison by bringing civilian doctors to check up on them, pro bono lawyers to study cases for potential appeals, and COs to provide various services. Bringing civilians face-to-face with prisoners changes the perceptions on both sides. The pro bono lawyers collected information to file appeals and to register the children and issue birth certificates. Nawal organized ad-hoc health services and later convinced the prison authority to hire a full-time nurse, permit pediatric vaccinations, and to allow medical caravans to enter the prison.
In addition to increasing access to health services, Nawal urgently called on prison wardens to air out all mattresses in the sun and to clean and sterilize them. She was able to work with the guards after gaining their trust that she is there to help them do their job better, rather than exposing the systems shortcomings in the media. By alerting the guards to airing the mattresses regularly, the prison was relieved of having to deal with so many cases of skin, respiratory, and other serious diseases caused by poor hygiene, lack of clean water, and poor ventilation. To provide special accommodation for infants, Nawal succeeded in building nurseries inside several prisons; possible once they were registered and could not be ignored. After six years of determination and lobbying for changes in prison regulations, Nawal implemented these landmark reforms in five female prisons and continues to work to improve the conditions in all of them.
Setting out to reverse the stigma against female prisoners and their children, Nawal is pushing society to recognize the humanity of female prisoners, to see them as mothers and as victims of poverty and gender inequality. The children of prisoners, both those born in prison and others living outside, suffer from a high societal stigma. Nawal raises a red alert in people’s minds, encouraging them to think about the effect this has on children, their communities and society at-large. By bringing it to the attention of the courts—“poverty” not “criminality”—is the reason why these women are sentenced to prison, Nawal crafted a new process, whereby a judge can revisit a case and file an appeal after a conviction; in the cases where there is a minor infraction, no prior criminal record, and the amount of money owed can be paid. Nawal raised the money to pay the loans of 70 female prisoners, and they were successfully released with the help of pro bono lawyers. In doing this, Nawal touched the lives of nearly 400 family members from Al Qanater prison. The women never returned because Nawal secured them with a means to provide for themselves, which granted them financial and social independence.
This marked yet another important legal precedent proving the success of Nawal’s new appeal process. By exposing this segment of the prison population to COs and presenting a solution, Nawal encouraged other COs to step in and complement her efforts. Misr El Kheir Foundation, a large CO with access to a lot of funding, started a special fund to pay the debts of poverty prisoners (both men and women), who were previously invisible to them. They also work with Nawal to identify income-generating projects and give ex-prisoners stipends to start small businesses after they are released. This collective effort led by Nawal has reduced the social stigma branding all prisoners as criminals by explaining and exposing poverty prisoners.
While continuing to partner with various organizations to deliver services to female prisoners and their children, Nawal is focused on policy reform. In 2010 she worked on a policy which gained the support of a number of male and female members of parliament who initially agreed to support her bill to postpone the sentence of single mothers until their child reaches the age of 4. Nawal worked in partnership with specialized human rights lawyers and COs (The New Woman Foundation, Alliance for Arab Women, Maat for legal services, and the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights and the newly established Egyptian Women’s Union) to apply this law to single mothers. They will carry on presenting it to the next elected Parliament.
Currently, Nawal is lobbying to implement an existing legislation that allows good behavior prisoners to work outside the prison to earn an income. Thus, female poverty prisoners with no prior criminal record can work outside—while being on strict parole or returning to sleep in the prison—to speed up the process of paying their loans and leaving prison.
Nawal is also designing an aftercare program to work with newly-released prisoners. The program starts one year before the inmate is released with interviews that are designed to help women set goals about how they will earn a living after release. The second phase will be securing small stipends (in coordination with other COs) for the women to find work or start a micro-business after release. The final element includes tracking the progress of each woman and providing additional services to help her gain financial independence. Nawal plans to create a system inside the prison to conduct handicrafts training; while establishing connections with factories who will buy the products; she got this idea from a female prisoner who started training her fellow inmates on handmade products.
Nawal will relaunch her magazine, Eyoun El Moustakbal meaning “Eyes of the Future,” another form of public outreach and to reach policymakers. The women in prison will write and edit their own stories and design the content. The stories will be published in print and online to provide a broader window of opportunity for the inmates to communicate with the outside world and reduce the stigma imposed on them.
Nawal is a Cairo-born novelist and journalist. Passionate about exposing social injustices and government corruption, Nawal pursued a career in journalism to raise public awareness to hidden problems. Early in her career, Nawal was mentored by Mustafa Amin, a pioneer of Arab journalism. Her love for investigative journalism began during her apprenticeship with Amin. In certain aspects, Nawal surpassed her mentor when she decided to not only write about the injustices she witnessed but went beyond her journalistic duty and acted to change the realities that disturbed her.
Nawal received a bachelor’s degree in Media and Journalism from Boston University in 1993. After finishing her degree, she worked as a foreign correspondent covering stories and issues from the US, England, and Switzerland to Greece and Morocco. More recently, Nawal heads the women’s investigative desk at Al-Akhbar and started a section of the paper called, “You Are Not Alone,” which caters to the concerns of low-income families and communities.
During an assignment, Nawal gained access to the Al Qanater prison to interview a Lebanese woman imprisoned in Egypt for a drug-related offence. She noticed the presence of children and was shocked to learn the children lived with their inmate mothers. Deeply disturbed by the harsh conditions, Nawal immediately dedicated her resources, efforts, and time to changing this situation for those women and children.
Nawal has continued to publish books, articles, studies, and short stories that expose taboo subjects. She has received several awards, including the Ali and Mustafa Amin Prize for Best Human Interest Story. In 2007 Nawal was awarded the most prestigious national award, the State Prize for Literature. Nawal also serves on the boards and committees of six organizations, including the cultural committee of the National Council for Women, and the International Journalists’ Network, and Women’s Edition. Despite a successful career in journalism, Nawal is dedicating her life’s work to address Egypt’s most difficult government institution—prison.