Standing in her small kitchen to prepare lunch for her two boys before they come back from school, Mona speaks about regret.
Mona, who prefers not to mention her real name because she feels ashamed, spent three years in prison for not paying a mounting debt of LE15,000, which was spent on her husband’s hospital treatment.
Four years ago, her husband, a driver, suffered from internal bleeding and a broken leg after a car accident. “I had no one to help me, neither my family nor his. I could have easily taken him to a public hospital for treatment but I knew he would die. Instead, I took him to a private hospital that I couldn’t afford. I had to sign checks to borrow the money. A year after he recovered, he declined to help me pay the debt. I went to prison; he divorced me and married another woman. It’s that simple,” Mona recounts.
“I should have left him to die. At least I wouldn’t have lost three years of my life,” she says. “But thank God, now I support myself and my kids while maintaining my dignity.”
Today Mona has a new life. She managed to find “kind people” who collected donations to pay her debt and secure a reduction on her 10-year prison sentence, of which she only served three years. Once out of prison, she bought a sewing machine to earn a living and rented a small flat to live in with her children.
Sohair Awad, program coordinator of Masr al-Kheir, a non-governmental organization that helps indebted women pay off their loans, explains that around 25 percent of those who are jailed for not paying their debts are women. She adds that women who are in debt either fully support their households, or support their husbands — who force them to work, or help their daughters marry.
This statistic resonates with a 2012 study by the National Council of Human Rights (NCHR), which reported that 35 percent of poor households in Egypt are run by women. Most of these women, according to the study, work in the informal sector, with no social insurance or medical protection. The overall percentage of women fully supporting their families in Egypt is 16 percent according to the latest census conducted by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the official national statistics body.
It is the same story every day, Awad adds. Women sign checks for amounts they don’t have, are charged and often lose their networks of support while in prison. Some women are lucky when they find organizations that pay their debt and help them initiate small projects to earn a living after they are released from prison.
The story of Samah Hamad is not very different. After her attempt to help her husband, a worker, she found herself in debt to the tune of LE25,000.
In just a few months she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. “My husband stopped visiting me. He considered my imprisonment shameful. He divorced me and married another woman,” she says, laughing sarcastically.
Hamad’s debt was paid after she spent three years in jail, during which, her daughters were abandoned by their father and kept moving from one relative’s house to the next. An NGO paid her debt, helped her rent an apartment and start a merchandise kiosk to support her and her three kids.
She still suffers from a sense of estrangement after her release. “After I left prison, even my brother declined to help me because he couldn’t stand an ex-prisoner in his house. Without this NGO, to whom I owe my life, I would have been on the streets,” she says, lowering her voice during the phone conversation with Mada Masr. “I’m standing in my kiosk, I don’t want customers to hear.”
With a state that isn’t supporting such women, but penalizing them instead for signing fake checks, various charitable organizations in Egypt have stepped up to call on Egyptians to donate to “gharemeen” — those in debt and facing the risk of jail because they cannot afford to pay their debts.
Adel Talaat, president of the Association of Female Prisoners’ Child Care, the organization that supported Hamad, tells Mada Masr that there have been more women in debt in the last three years, especially given the current period of economic turmoil in Egypt. In 2014, the NGO paid an unprecedented LE100,000 to help women out of debt.
Masr al-Kheir reports similar figures. “At Masr al-Kheir, we focus on the poorest segments of the population, those whose debts amount to LE10,000 or less. Since 2010, our organization has paid the debts of over 23,000 people,” Awad says.
While Masr al-Kheir and other major charitable organizations like Dar al-Orman have repeatedly said that the process of paying the debts of ghareemat women has been facilitated by the Ministry of Social Affairs, no efforts have been taken by the ministry to suggest a plan to deal with the deteriorating situations of these women.
Mirroring the work by civil society groups, the state has also collected donations from people for indebted women, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan, when such charity is common.
The Armed Forces declared last year that it would pay the debts of gharemeen, with the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper reporting that the debts of 320 women were alleviated. Mohamed Naeem, governor of the Delta city of Gharbeya, paid the debts of 11 women in late July, according to official media.
But, a solution that transcends sporadic payments to a few indebted women is needed. Director of the Egyptian Ombudsman’s Office for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights, activist Fatima Khafagy, tells Mada Masr that there have been zero social plans by the state for women’s economic empowerment.
“Social policies to economically empower women should be part of a larger state policy to address social justice. Despite some humble calls by the National Council for Women’s Rights to articulate such policies and implement them, there has been no talk of women’s economic empowerment,” she says.
The new administration’s discourse on women is not promising either. In various television appearances, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi praised the role of women in ending the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood through public protests. But “Women for Sisi” are now calling on them to stay home and to wisely run their households by checking that the lights are turned off, in order to help the nation through its electricity crisis.
“I do not expect Sisi to be gender-conscious given the background he comes from. His view of women’s empowerment seems not very different from that of his predecessors. I’m very pessimistic,” says Khafagy.
“I do not need men anymore,” Mona laughs, as wrinkles around her mouth and eyes add to her mere 33 years of age. She is now settled, out of prison, with her children and her sewing machine. She ponders the possibility of having gone down a different path in which she didn’t have to support her husband, but instead ventured into the more lucrative world of sex work.
“I would have easily worked as a prostitute to feed my children, but feared that I would lose my reputation. Instead, I went to prison, got divorced and dumped by everyone, and I lost my reputation anyway. Sometimes evil thoughts come to my mind and I ask myself why I wasn’t a prostitute from the beginning. I would have saved myself this hassle,” she laughs, not without sarcasm.