Egyptian initiative transforms female prisoners’ lives

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A local initiative has given Egypt’s indebted female prisoners a second chance at stability. The initiative’s founder Nawal Moustafa, above. (Supplied)
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New Life is a collaboration between the Egyptian non-profit Prisoners of Poverty and the Zurich-based Drosos Foundation (Supplied)
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A local initiative has given Egypt’s indebted female prisoners a second chance at stability. (Supplied)
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New Life is a business incubator that aims to economically support underprivileged women, including indebted female prisoners. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Egyptian initiative transforms female prisoners’ lives

  • A majority of women imprisoned at Qanater Female Prison had incurred debt after being abandoned
  • Journalist Nawal Moustafa launched non-profit Prisoners of Poverty after covering a story at the prison

CAIRO: “It was all going well until I defaulted on many due instalments, and soon after, I found myself in prison,” says Nahla (not her real name) while sewing a garment at a workshop owned and operated by New Life.

The business incubator, which aims to economically support underprivileged women, is a collaboration between the Egyptian non-profit Prisoners of Poverty and the Zurich-based Drosos Foundation.

Nahla, 32, had no clue at the time that defaulting on an instalment could land her in prison. Like many women who end up in her situation, she was going to spend a significant portion of her twenties locked away.

However, one day in the early 1990s, years before Nahla was imprisoned, an Egyptian journalist was reporting on a story from Qanater Female Prison when she noticed a group of children playing in the prison yard.

Driven by journalistic curiosity, Nawal Moustafa, now president of Prisoners of Poverty, started investigating how babies and toddlers could possibly end up incarcerated.

After interviewing many of the mothers, Moustafa started noticing a clear pattern in their stories — defaulting on debt instalments. The prevailing trend was that the majority of these women had incurred debt to support their families after their husbands, the breadwinners, had abruptly abandoned them.

After publishing a series of in-depth interviews with some of these inmates, Moustafa received an outpouring of support from her readers, prompting her to look into an effective way to help.

“It was an odd thing at the time for someone to sympathize with imprisoned people,” Moustafa said.

“Even my friends found it odd, and some of them accused me of championing criminals. But what I was certain of was that not all of them were criminals, and a lot of my readers agreed.”

Helped by donations from her readers, she initially provided daily essentials to these women and their children, the latter entitled by law to stay with their mothers on a monthly basis until they turn two.




Over time, Prisoners of Poverty has become a destination for underprivileged Egyptian women looking to make a living. (Supplied)

Aided by the prison’s officers, Moustafa started identifying cases of women taken advantage of by their husbands or incarcerated due to their genuine lack of resources.

“All the ‘ailments of poverty’ were evident in these women’s stories,” said Moustafa. “I felt responsible toward them. You can visit a hospital or a shelter to volunteer, but you’d never think about going to a prison. I felt that God had sent me to be their voice.”

By the early 2000s, Moustafa was working tirelessly to collect funds to pay these women’s debts so they could be free. However, she quickly discovered that many of them ended up back in prison for more or less the same reasons.

“After they are released, they become not only vulnerable due to their lack of resources, but even more unable to land jobs because of the stigma associated with being an ex-convict. Some of them are even disowned by their families because of the stigma, so they end up incurring debt again,” she said.

Seeking a more drastic solution, Moustafa launched Prisoners of Poverty in 2007. Not only did she pay the debt of women deemed deserving of a second chance, but she also established a workshop where they could learn skills — like knitting, sewing, or catering — to be able to make a living and break the vicious cycle.

Over time, Prisoners of Poverty became a destination for underprivileged women looking to make a living. Some were ex-prisoners; others were at high risk of ending up in prison.

In 2014, the Drosos Foundation joined in with more funding, enabling the launch of New Life — a sewing workshop for garments, textiles and thread paintings, among many other products.

Some of the women have gone on to launch their own businesses, and many others still rely on the workshop, making enough to support themselves and their families.

Due to her efforts in this area over the past two decades, Moustafa has won a number of awards and accolades across the region. Most notable among them is the 2018 Arab Hope Maker, a prize of AED 1 million ($272,300), awarded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE.

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This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Political novices drawn to rally against Netanyahu

Updated 13 August 2020

Political novices drawn to rally against Netanyahu

  • The boisterous rallies have brought out a new breed of first-time protesters — young, middle-class Israelis

JERUSALEM: In a summer of protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the accusations of corruption and calls for him to resign could be accompanied by another familiar refrain: “I’ve never done this before.”

The boisterous rallies have brought out a new breed of first-time protesters — young, middle-class Israelis who have little history of political activity but feel that Netanyahu’s scandal-plagued rule and his handling of the coronavirus crisis have robbed them of their futures. It is a phenomenon that could have deep implications for the country’s leaders.

“It’s not only about the COVID-19 and the government’s handling of the situation,” said Shachar Oren, a 25-year-old protester. “It’s also about the people that cannot afford to eat and cannot afford to live. I am one of those people.”

Oren is among the thousands of people who gather outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem several times a week, calling on the longtime leader to resign. The young demonstrators have delivered a boost of momentum to a movement of older, more established protesters who have been saying Netanyahu should step down when he is on trial for corruption charges.

The loose-knit movements have joined forces to portray Netanyahu as an out-of-touch leader, with the country’s most bloated government in history and seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax benefits for himself at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is raging and unemployment has soared to over 20 percent.

Many of the young protesters have lost their jobs or seen their career prospects jeopardized. They have given the protests a carnival-like atmosphere, pounding on drums and dancing in the streets in colorful costumes while chanting vitriolic slogans against the prime minister.

Netanyahu has tried to dismiss the protesters as “leftists” or “anarchists.” Erel Segal, a commentator close to the prime minister, has called the gatherings “a Woodstock of hatred.”

Despite such claims, there are no signs that any opposition parties are organizing the gatherings. Politicians have been noticeably absent from most of the protests.

Israel has a long tradition of political protest, be it peace activists, West Bank settlers or ultra-Orthodox Jews. The new wave of protesters seems to be characterized by a broader, mainstream appeal.

“The partisan issue is totally missing, and the party organizations are not present,” said Tamar Hermann, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank and expert on protest movements.

Hermann said the protesters resemble many other protest movements around the world. “They are mostly middle class,” she said. “And they were kicked out of work.”

Oren, for instance, said he used to survive on a modest salary as a software analyst thanks to training he received in an Israeli military high-tech unit. Then he moved into tutoring — offering lessons in English, computers and chess to schoolchildren.

He said things were not easy, but he was “too busy surviving” to think about political activity. That changed when the coronavirus crisis began in March.

Oren’s business crashed.

With unemployment soaring, Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz, formed a coalition with 34 Cabinet ministers, the largest government in Israel’s history. Beyond the generous salaries, these ministers, many with vague titles, enjoy perks like drivers, security guards and office space, and can hand out jobs to cronies.

A Netanyahu ally dismissed reports that people were having trouble feeding their families as “BS.”

Oren said he became “furious,” and about two months ago, he went to his first protest against the nation’s leaders. “They are there because we gave them the power and want them to help us. And they’re not doing anything,” he explained.

Oren now treks to Jerusalem from his home in the city of Kfar Saba in central Israel, about an hour away, three times a week. He is easily recognizable with his poster that says “House of Corruption,” depicting Netanyahu in a pose similar to Kevin Spacey’s nefarious “House of Cards” character, Frank Underwood.

Oren says he does not belong to any political party or any of the movements organizing the rallies, but that the diverse group of activists all want similar things. “No to the corruption, the poverty, the detachment. We’re just saying enough,” he said.

University student Stav Piltz went through a similar evolution. Living in downtown Jerusalem near Netanyahu’s residence, she quickly noticed the demonstrations in her neighborhood when they began several months ago. She talked to protesters as well as local residents at the cafe where she waitressed before she was laid off.

She said she noticed a common theme. “They feel that something is very critical now in the political climate and no one is listening to the citizens and the pain we are experiencing,” she said.

But Piltz said the spark that drew her to protest was a national strike last month by the country’s social workers.

Piltz, herself a social work student, said she has a history of social activism but has never been involved with party politics. The collection of women, coming from different religious, political, ethnic and racial backgrounds, was a powerful sight. “This is where I saw how much power we have when we are together,” she said.

The demonstrations, which have gained strength in recent weeks, are the largest sustained wave of public protests since hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in 2011 to draw attention to the country’s high cost of living. While those protests ultimately fizzled, two of their leaders entered parliament, and one, Itzik Shmuli, is now the country’s welfare minister.

Both Piltz and Oren said they are determined to keep up their activities in the long term.

“People have nothing to lose. So it’s very easy to go demonstrate these days, especially if you’re young and you see no future here,” Piltz said.

Hermann, the political analyst, said too many Israeli youths have been “politically ignorant” and that it is a “very good sign” for the country’s democracy that people are becoming involved.

The leaders, however, may not be so pleased to face a politically aware young generation.

“They are much more difficult to be controlled while they gain political views and confidence,” she said.