Babies behind bars…

Nawal Moustafa talks about the children of women in prison

Nawal Moustafa is an award winning journalist, writer, scriptwriter, novelist and public speaker. Aside from her great resume, she isthe head of ‘The Children of Women Prisoners Care Association’, fighting for the rights of “Poverty Prisoners” who are thousands of women that were put behind bars for not being able to pay an often ridiculously low bill. These women are imprisoned with their infants in order to nurse and take care of them until they are 2 years old. Unfortunately, a new generation of innocence is born behind bars without proper child or healthcare.

In 1990, Nawal Moustafa went to El Qanater Prison to write a story about three Lebanese women, who were sentenced to death for smuggling heroine to Egypt. There she spotted little children and that is when everything began. After reporting and writing stories of women in prison, Nawal touched the public with her words and was encouraged to establish ‘The Children of Women Prisoners Care Association’.

How do these babies live in prison?

The first question I asked was what do these babies do in a prison behind bars? I delved into a world that has so many contradictions, there are very rich prisoners and there are extremely poor ones and these poor prisoners work for the rich ones. Some women were imprisoned for stealing millions of money and other women were imprisoned for a 1000 LE they couldn’t pay back after buying a fridge or a washing machine.We started focusing on the children who died as a result of not having a fixed budget in prison. They used to live on their mother’s budget which of course isn’t enough at all. When I started the campaign, I raised awareness and the Ministry of Interior decided that there should be a budget just for the babies in prison and we were able to make that change and the babies’ budget was created. Of course this isn’t enough but we collect donations to buy them milk, medicine, blankets in the winter and fans in the summer. There are also kids outside prison who are older than 2 years old, so we see if their families want to take care of them, if not, we send them to children care institutions.

Are you able to release any prisoners through donations?

I starting seeing lots of women who were imprisoned for not being able to pay very little amounts of money and I started a project in 2007 called “Women Prisoners of Poverty” as I don’t consider these women criminals. I started calling for releasing these women and people supported this cause and donated until we were able to release 70 prisoners.

After these “Prisoners of Poverty” come out of prison, are they able to start a new life?

We have another projectcalled “A New Life” that focuses on the prisoner who faced injustice twice once when she was imprisoned and another time when she came out of prison and was rejected by society.Anyemployerin the world won’t employ an ex inmate, he won’t even care to ask about what was she accused of. These women are behind bars because of ignorance because they sign a promissory note with double and triple the amount they agreed on without noticing and sometimes their husbands put them in trouble when he lets them sign for hischecks and then runs away.

How do you help them re-integrate?

We do workshops for prisoners to build up their skills to master several crafts so they can be able to start up fresh when they come out. We are working on a protocol with the prison and they are supporting the idea because it appeared that women who come out of prison get in again because of the same problems.Prisoners returning are a financial burden on The Ministry of Interior; hence they support initiatives like these. We protect the whole family and put them on a whole new track. More than 70 babies are behind bars in Qanater Prison alone.I found out that some prisoners are college graduates and one of them was an arts teacher so she decided to teach the other prisoners art classes and we got them all the tools needed. We are also planning on creating an exhibition soon and the outcome of their paintings goes for their support. It’s great that in this darkness there are arts and colors.

Tell us about your upcoming film‘Tefl fel Zenzana” (A child in a prison cell)

I’m a scriptwriter and I believe that drama in Egypt helped in solving many social problems like the old movie “Kelmet Sharaf” starring Farid Shawky, when he promised that he will come out of prison to attend his relative’s wedding and go back to prison upon a word of honor. After this movie, a law was issued that allowed inmates to attend an event of a close relative and return to prison. My goal is to do a film that screams out many social problems that result in poverty, ignorance and crimes.

In your opinion, how come the media doesn’t shed light on this important issue?

Lots of people don’t know about our work although it is very realistic we just don’t have a budget for TV advertising like other institutes do. Journalists find it an interesting case, but they don’t take the revolutionary road until they make a change. I’m an Ashoka fellow because I’m a change maker, it’s a cause for me not just a case to write about to gain public attention and then switch to another. I need media that is interested to make real change and fight for this cause not just cover it. We want media to create change and not just a thrill. We want audiences who ask themselves how can I participate in this change.

Do you think that donations from the civil society are enough? Is it our role to participate in this way?

The idea of social responsibility Egypt is built on giving donations and that’s something we really want to change, because we can’t create a healthy society through donations only, we need to solve problems from the core so we can get rid of the problem in the first place and the people become able of supporting themselves. People are lazy and waiting for donations by other people like the MB for example and the circle spins. Don’t give a man a fish but show him how to fish.  We need to complete each other, our role isn’t to just donate some money so people can eat, it’smuch more than that.

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