“Can we give someone a second chance if they made a mistake? Can this chance change their lives? If it is a must that every criminal should be punished, does this mean that their chance to change their lives and start over again is not available?”
Within Egypt’s nine female prisons, there are approximately 3,200 incarcerated women who are either pregnant or are mothers of young children. The Egyptian prison system permits children to reside in women’s prisons—in the same living conditions as their mothers—until the age of four. There are no special accommodations or special services provided for them.
In the early 1990s, nearly 700 children between the ages of 0-2 were living in prisons with their mothers and an estimated 2,500 children, aged 2-15, 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.
The majority of female prisoners in Egypt are serving terms because of unpaid loans or petty misdemeanors due to poverty conditions. Upon being released, however, these women still face severe social stigma and find it difficult to receive support from friends and family.
Nawal Mostafa is a Cairo-born novelist and journalist. During one of her assignments as a journalist, Nawal gained access to the Al Qanater Female Prison to interview four Lebanese women who were imprisoned in Egypt for a drug related offence. After her interview, she noticed the presence of children and was shocked to learn that the children live there with their mothers. Deeply disturbed by the harsh conditions they were living in, Nawal immediately dedicated her resources, efforts, and time to change this reality for the women and their children inside the prison.
In 1990, Nawal formalized her idea into a registered CSO-” Children of Women Prisoners Association” –which is dedicated to improving the lives of female poverty prisoners and their children.
Nawal created a three-tiered systemized approach to tackle the challenges faced by “poverty prisoners”—mothers and children living in Egypt’s prisons—and their integration back into society.
Firstly, Nawal works directly with female prisoners and the prison authorities inside the correctional facilities to improve their conditions. Second, she raises awareness about female prisoners and children of the prison to lessen the societal stigma. Third, Nawal is changing laws and regulations inside and outside the prison.
On a monthly basis, Nawal visits Al Qanater Female Prison. During her visit, Nawal checks the status of the female prisoners and their children. Her CSO offers health and nutrition services for the children and their mothers. In addition to these services, the CSO also supplies the prison with electric boilers, fans and other equipment needed. The CSO helps the mothers obtain birth certificates for their newly born babies as most of the female prisoners can’t afford paying for the administration fees of birth certificates.
In 2007, thanks to Nawal’s effort, the first female poverty prisoner “Omayma” was released.
If you visit Children of Women Prisoners Association, you can hear a lot of similar stories from the female beneficiaries who were recently released from prison and who always come on regular basis to benefit from the different services provided to them by the CSO.
Asmaa H. from Minya thought she would never be able to get out prison soon as she was expected to be released in 2026 and had already spent 4 years in prison. Asmaa, who is a mother of three girls, used to buy clothes from traders and sell them to her relatives, neighbors and friends. Her customers used to pay her in installments. Unfortunately, some of her customers stopped paying their installments and consequently, she failed to pay the traders she dealt with. Making matters worse, Asmaa used to sign blank receipts for the traders. Although in reality she owed them around 50 thousand pounds, they wrote in the blank receipts that she owed them more than 1 million pounds. As a result, Asmaa was sent to prison for 18 years. Asmaa’s life became more dramatic when her husband divorced her and her daughters were bullied by their relatives and neighbors.
Nawal managed to open a new door of hope for Asmaa and her daughters. Nawal and her CSO helped Asmaa pay back her installments and she was released from prison after 4 years.
Nawal doesn’t only focus on female prisoners and their children while they are in prison; she also works with them after their release. Her main aim as she explains is “to prevent them from being criminals again. Society can’t afford losing another member again”.
After her release from prison, Fatma S. opened a small kiosk; however, she didn’t have the necessary funds to buy any goods. With the help of Nawal, she managed to take a loan without any interest in order to buy the goods she needed to open the kiosk and start a new chapter in her life.
Nawal capitalized on the fact that she is a well-known novelist and journalist to advocate for the cause and to change the perspective of the public towards those female prisoners to reduce their social stigma. Nawal wrote a lot of articles and published them in many national newspapers and magazines during the last 23 years. Nawal has also spoke about female prisoners and their children’s problems on many TV and radio programs.
Nawal’s CSO launched “Eyoun El Moustakbal”, a magazine that translates as “Eyes of the Future,” as another form of outreach to change ideologies of the public and reach policy makers. The women in prison can edit and write their own stories and come up with their own ideas they would like to publish. These stories are published in print and online in an effort to provide a broader window of opportunity for the inmates to communicate with the outside world and reduce the negative stigma imposed on them.
Away from the prison, Nawal is currently lobbying for enhancing and refining the laws and regulations for poverty prisoners and their children. Her efforts succeeded when Field Marshal Abdlelfattah Al-Sisi announced that the Egyptian armed forces will pay the outstanding loans to release female poverty prisoners. She is currently waiting for the parliamentary elections to take concrete action steps but until the elections take place, she is using media to create awareness and to reduce the social stigma.
As a result of all her great work, Nawal has received international recognition for her efforts. In 2013, Nawal was nominated for the HiiL Innovating Justice Award – which was launched by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The award was dedicated for social entrepreneurs who work in the field of human rights.
In 2014, Nawal was chosen among the nine finalists in the Ashoka Changemakers Competition “Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality”. The competition- which was organized by Ashoka and General Electric- was an online competition in search of innovative solutions that will advance economic opportunities for women in Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Pakistan.
Currently, Nawal is working on the “the integration and reducing social stigma project for female prisoners and their children”. She has recently signed an agreement with Drosos Foundation and a protocol with the Egyptian Prisons Authority to build a special place in Qanater prison to host workshops for female prisoners who will soon be released, in order for them to learn certain skills to help them acquire jobs or start their own business once they are released.
In parallel to the workshops, Nawal will start huge, nationwide campaigns to reduce the social stigma of poverty prisoners and to help their integration back into society once they are released.