Nawal Moustafa is changing the perception of female prisoners and their children while being the first to shed light on an unseen population—“poverty prisoners.” She is improving prison conditions and changing policy to help rehabilitate former inmate women and children back into society.
Nawal Moustafa is organizing the first efforts in Egypt to change the treatment of female prisoners as well as their young children living within the prison. She identified a special group of female prisoners whom she calls “poverty prisoners” who are imprisoned not necessarily because of a criminal record but because they had become victims of poverty and debt with loans they were unable to pay off. Nawal’s work aims to not only improve conditions within female prisons, but to help rehabilitate female inmates and their children during their term and upon release and in turn, lessening the stigma attached to such poverty prisoners.
Nawal has successfully navigated the prison system—one of Egypt’s most difficult institutions to penetrate—in order 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 sector organizations to enter the prison walls 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—whereby cases can be re-visited and appealed after a person has been convicted. This innovation applies to cases where there is a minor infraction with no prior criminal record and creates a precedent in the justice system that can be applied to any prisoner.
She is leading policy reform efforts, while changing public perceptions that all prisoners are alike and connecting women with the interventions that address their poverty needs before it results in further imprisonment with its exponential social costs. Nawal has designed a systematic process for family reconciliation for prisoners one year before their release to ensure a safe integration back in to society after being released and to prevent recidivism, the rate of prisoners who return back to prison because the conditions outside are the same and they fall in to the same trap more than once.
With the transition in Egypt’s government and the writing of 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 to the public. Her work is being widely replicated in Egypt’s female prisons and has received significant attention throughout the Arab world.
As in-other developing countries, Egypt does not uphold the Standard of Minimum Rules for the treatment of prisoners (SMR) according to international law. Prisoners of Egypt’s nine all-female prions suffer conditions in which they live in over-crowded spaces with other inmates, each sleeping on a ten-square foot dirty cement floor without running water and very 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 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 provided for pregnant inmates or those who have children living with them. Further, in many of the prisons, the 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 walls.
After the children of the prison turn four they cannot stay in the prison 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 has finished her term.Before Nawal’s work, these children did not have birth certificates and were not registered in the system, so were unable to access any basic rights such as health care, education, work, etc. It is often difficult for these children to integrate back into society. Many of them end up living on the streets or get picked up by gang leaders who force them to be involved in illegal activities.
In the early 1990s, Egypt’s prison system allowed children to stay in the prison with their mothers until just the age of two. At the time, nearly 700 children between the ages of 0-2 were living in prisons with their mothers and an estimated 2,500 children, ages 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 is 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 eye.
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 blaming the woman for having been involved in an illicit activity. Thus, it is very difficult for women to gain support from family or a community while serving a prison sentence. The majority of female prisoners in Egypt, however, are serving terms because of unpaid loans or petty misdemeanors due to poverty conditions. Very few have a prior criminal record. Upon being released, however, these women still face severe social stigma and find it difficult to receive support from friends and family. Without a job or means to take care of a family they continue to remain in poverty and many of them end back up in prison.
Moreover, working to expose prison violations has historically been challenging as one would have to work under a police state with closed state institutions and no access to any prison records. It is a neglected topic in society and on government agendas.
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. First, she 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, Nawalis changinglawsand regulations inside and outside the prison.
During Mubarak’s time starting in the 1990’s, Nawal embarked uponEgypt’s black box, the prison system, which very few people have gained access to and statistics still remain hidden from public view; 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 has to constantly be renewed. With determination to work intensely on the conditions inside the prison and exposing system failures, Nawal manoeuvred her way in to the prison by leading the authorities to think she was only entering for charitable reasons. During that time, she spoke with the prisoners about their stories, their life circumstances and choices they made that landed them in prison. Based on the data she collected, she was able to categorize them into different segments according to their type of case and specific needs. She discovered that nearly 40 percent of the female prison population in Al Qanater prison were there becausethey had been unable to make payments on time for loans that their husbands convinced them to sign or to black market merchants who unfairly 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. Simultaneously, she exposed the issue to the public shocking them with the realities she saw inside the prison, 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 in to prisoners, never before had a CSO been allowed to deliver services or supplies inside a prison.For the first time, Nawal exposed this segment of the prison population to the public, pushing them to see and read the stories of these women, mothers, and children through a different lens. Nawal was the first to address the rights, conditions, and context of non-political prisoners in addition to shining the light on female “Poverty Prisoners”—mothers and their children. The public response and support sparked Nawal to start her CSO, “Children of Women Prisoners Association.”
By adding a monthly visit to Al Qanater prison and others to her regular schedule, Nawal quickly identified a specific course of action to follow to begin making changes on the ground. Upon discovering that children inside the prison were dying at a rate of 40 babies per month without any documentation of their life or death, Nawal tracked the numbers herself and convinced the prison of the need to keep records. Once the babies were registered on the books, the prison was compelled to supplyadditional food rations, vitamins, and milk instead of sharing an adult food portion with their mothers.
Nawal began to change the dynamic of the prison by generating regular trafficin and out of the prison by bringing in civilian doctors for the first time to check up on prisoners, pro-bono lawyers to study cases for potential appeals, and CSOsto provide variousservices. Bringing civilians face-to-facewith prisoners changes the perceptions on both sides. The bro-bono lawyerscollected information to file appeals and to register the children and issue them birth certificates. She organized ad-hoc health services to the prison and later convincedthe Prison Authority to hire a full time nurse, allow paediatric vaccinations, and the permission to allow medical caravans to enter the prison.
In addition to increasing access to health services, Nawal urgently called on the prison wardens to air out all mattresses in the sun to clean and sterilize them. Nawal 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 shortcomings of the system in the media. By alerting the guards to airing out the mattresses on a regular basis, the prison was relieved of having to deal with so many cases of skin, respiratory, and other serious diseasescaused by bad hygiene, lack of clean water, and poor ventilation.To provide special accommodation for infants, Nawal succeeded at building nurseries inside several prisons, which was possible once the children were registered on the books and could not be ignored. After six years of determination and lobbying for these changes to the prison regulations, Nawal managed to implement the above landmark reformsinfiveof the female prisons in Egypt and continues to work on improving the conditions in all of them.
Setting out to reverse the stigma against female prisoners and their children, Nawal is pushing societyto 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 ared alert in people’s minds encouraging them to think about the effect this reality has on these children, their communities and as well the society at large. By bringing it to the attention of the courts that “poverty” not “criminality” is the reason why these women are sentenced to prison, Nawal was able to craft a new process whereby a judge can revisit a case and file an appeal after a person has been convicted, in the cases where there is a minor infraction with no prior criminal record and the amount of money owed can be paid off. Nawal independently raised money to pay off the loans of 70 female prisoners, and successfully released the prisoners with the help of pro bono lawyers. Nawal was able to improve the lives of 70 families, which are made-up of nearly 400 family members from Al Qanater Prison. All the prisoners were released and never returned to prison because Nawal secured them with a means to provide for themselves, granting 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 CSOs and presenting a solution for it, Nawal encouraged other CSOs to step in and compliment her efforts. Misr El Kheir Foundation, a large CSO with access to a lot of charity funds, started a special fund to pay off the debts of “Poverty Prisoners” (both men and women) who were invisible to them before. They also work with Nawal to identify income generating projects and give ex-prisoners stipends to start small businesses after they are released from prison. This collective effort led by Nawal has reduced the social stigma branding all prisoners as criminals by explaining and exposing poverty prisoners and the reasons they end in prison. Thus, people are more able to distinguish between poverty prisoners and criminal offenders.
While continuing to partner with various organizations to deliver services to female prisoners and their children, Nawal is now 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 CSOs (New Woman Foundation, Alliance for Arab Women, Maat for Legal Services, and the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights and the newly established Union for Women’s CSOs) to apply this law to single mothers. They will carry on presenting it to the next elected Parliament, when it is in place.
Currently, she is lobbying to implement an existing legislation that allows good behaviour prisoners to work outside of the prison and earn an income. Thus, female poverty prisoners with no prior criminal record can work outside—while being on strict parole or while returning to sleep in the prison after work—to speed up the process of paying off theirloans andgetting out of prison earlier.
Additionally, Nawal is 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 the woman set goals for how she will earn a living after her release. The second phase will be securing small stipends (in coordination with other CSOs) for these women to find work or start a micro-business after being released. The final element includes tracking the progress of each woman and providing additional services to help her gainfinancial independence. Nawal also plans to create a system inside the prison to conduct handicrafts training for the women, 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.
In addition, Nawal will re-launch her magazine, “Eyoun El Moustakbal” meaning “Eyes of the Future,” which is another form of outreach to change ideologies of the public and reach policy makers. The women in prison will edit and write their own stories and come up with the ideas they would like to publish. These stories will be 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.
Nawal Mostafa is a Cairo-born novelist and journalist. Passionate aboutexposing social injustices and government corruption, Nawal decided to pursue a career in journalism so as to raise public awareness to hidden problems. Early on in her career, Nawal was mentored by Mustafa Amin, a pioneer of Arab journalism. Her love for investigative journalism began during her apprenticeship years while working with Amin. In certain aspects, Nawal surpassed her mentor when she decided to not only write about the injustices she witnessed but also go beyond her journalistic duty and take action to change the realities that disturbed her.
Nawal received a B.A. in Media andJournalism from Boston University in 1993. After finishing her degree in Boston, she worked as a foreign correspondent covering stories and issues from the United States, 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 newspaper named, “You AreNot Alone,” which caters to the concerns of low-income families and communities.
During one of her assignments, Nawal gained access to the Al Qanater Prison to interview a Lebanese woman who was imprisoned in Egypt for a drug related offence.She noticed the presence of children and was shocked to learn that the children live there with their inmate mothers. Deeply disturbed by the harsh conditions they were living in,Nawal immediately started dedicating her resources, efforts, and time to changing this reality for the women and children inside that prison. In 1990, Nawal formalized her idea into a registered CSO dedicated to improving the lives of female poverty prisoners and their children.
Nawal has continued to publish books, articles, studies and short stories that expose taboo subjects to the public. 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.” Additionally, Nawal serves on the Boards and committees of six other organizations including the Cultural Committee of the National Council for Women, and the International Network of Journalists, the Women’s Edition. Despite a successful career in journalism, Nawal chose to dedicate her life’s work to address Egypt’s most difficult government institution—the prison.