Illiterate, unemployed, and victims of extortion, Egypt's female debtors - known as 'Gharemaat' - are often imprisoned for as long as 30 years without them knowing their crime.
Awatif laid the only cover they had given her on the floor to sleep. Her stomach was still gurgling from hunger and the screams of other inmates sleeping on top of each other were keeping her awake, but she changed position, squeezed the cover, and forced herself to fall asleep again. “It was hard. It was the hardest thing I've ever lived through," says the 40-old-woman, who spent six traumatising days in prison.
The cell, a small dark room that eight women shared, did not have enough beds for all of them. That instant, as she shivered with cold, her body lying on the wet floor, she cursed the moment she took a loan from her neighbour. She never imagined it would lead her to jail.
“I learnt. I learnt a lot,” Awatif says in tears, as she recalls the humiliation and the ongoing pain of being without her husband, who still awaits his release from prison. Awatif had taken a loan from a neighbour and bought electronics to sell, but business did not go as expected and she ended up borrowing more money again, sparking a vicious circle that led her to a 13,000 EGP debt.
“The crime is registered as 'Betrayal to Municipality' which could be explained as a receipt given out without the amount available to pay, according to Clause 341 under Criminal Law,” explains legal attorney Emad Abdallah. Known as Gharemaat, these women are often forced by unemployment, illiteracy, and their dire need to subsist, to borrow money and fall into a debt spiral they cannot afford to pay their way out of.
“Many women in Egypt are forced to borrow money for their children’s education, for marriage, and often for medication. People are so desperate they are willing to do anything to get money,” says Soheir Awad, head of the Gharemeen project at the Misr El Kheir Foundation. Some people, she explains, take advantage of their desperation. “They often get tricked when it comes to money; for example, sellers offer them an item for 1,000 EGP and then make her sign a receipt for 4,000 EGP. But because she cannot read or write, she has a debt she doesn’t know about.”
Through their project, Gharemeen, the non-profit organisation is helping debtors who are unfairly imprisoned get out of jail. “According to Egyptian criminal law, sentences for debtors can go from a day to a maximum of three years,” says Abdallah, who acts as the organisation’s Legal Department Head. “But businessmen in Egypt are very sneaky, so they bring different people together to compile a variety of receipts for the women to sign. Collectively, these add up to sentences that can exceed 30 years for an amount as small as 500 EGP, because they are owed to many loaners.” Within the Egyptian legal framework, the higher the number of loaners owed, the longer the potential prison sentence is for the debtor. Once the loaners sue the debtor, the government pays them their outstanding debt.
Like Awatif, Rasheeda had bought electronic items to sell in order to pay for the cost of her son’s wedding, whom she was forced to support on her own after her husband passed away. The 47-year-old woman bought TV sets, fridges, and other items for 15,000 EGP, but as the ceremony approached and she grew desperate to pay off her debts, she had to sell them for 10,000 EGP.
“The people who had sold me the items began to attack me asking for their money, so in order to pay my debts, I took more things from other stores to sell,” she explains. “She tried to do good, but she has the wrong mentality and it backfired,” her brother explains. "Because she is uneducated and illiterate, she has no knowledge of math or even a basic understanding of fundamental business concepts such as buying and selling." As two months went by without her being able to pay her debts, both shop businessmen sued her, in a never-ending spiral that concluded with 10 lawsuits against her.
“In addition, businessmen add interest every time they don't pay their debts on time, so the amount keeps increasing. Sometimes it goes up to 50,000 or 100,000 EGP, and they get sentenced for 30 to 50 years,” explains Awad. “The judge usually doesn’t know that she’s been tricked into it, because when he asks her if this is her signature, she says yes. However, she doesn’t know that the papers have a different amount written; in her mind, she only signed for 1,000 EGP.”
Since their Gharemeen project started in 2010, Misr El Kheir Foundation has helped 30,000 people out of jail, but they estimate the number of those still in prison exceeds that frame. Like Awatif, many women face difficulties re-integrating into their communities after being released from prison due to the social stigma attached to prisoners. Aiming to assist them in finding a source of income, the organisation also runs a programme for ex-convicts to produce handcrafted carpets. “We try to solve the problems from the roots, so we try to come up with business plans and hire people to work so that they don’t have to borrow from others,” says Awad.
The organisation has launched two factories for handmade silk carpets and scarves; one of them is in Alexandria, where 620 debtors were trained and given a job, and the other is located inside the Minya prison for women. There is also a third one in progress.
“After conducting research, we realised that at some point we were number two in the world in the carpet industry, an art that was slowly dying; so we decided to set up a carpet factory in Alexandria and hire people who need jobs and teach them the process. These women who've been falsely labelled as criminals are actually hardworking citizens producing incredible pieces that reflect our heritage. This just proves that when you give a person an opportunity, they will work and produce the best outcome,” she concludes.
To learn more about how you can help the Misr El Kheir foundation click here.
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb
Videographer: Mina Saber