Hana, a 44-year-old Egyptian mother of three, used to do odd jobs around the house. One day a friend asked her to secure a small loan she needed to buy a fridge, stove and TV for her granddaughter. She accepted without thinking too much. And at first everything went well because her friend continued to pay $83 per month.
Eventually, however, her friend ran into financial trouble. She could no longer repay the loan and fled. The store where she bought all the devices then sued Hana, as surety, for the rest, which was about $932. But because she couldn’t afford to pay, she was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison. She spent four and a half months in Al Qanater women’s prison, north of Cairo.
When she was released, Hana discovered that she had again been sued for another loan, one she had taken out to open her small abaya and sewing workshop. Between the COVID-19 pandemic crippling business and her imprisonment, she was unable to repay the loan. She ended up facing another sentence of up to two years.
There are thousands of cases like Hana’s in Egypt. Poor debtors, who default, called gharemat, and end up behind bars or on the run after defaulting on their loans and guarantees. Although the amounts for which they are sued are usually very small and they are often victims of scams, the law is very harsh, with prison sentences of up to three years.
The Children of Female Prisoners Association (CFPA) is an Egyptian organization that helps these women and promotes legal reform. The group, which creates videos of these women tell their stories and share them via YouTube, has partnered with the creative collective Horizon FCB Dubai to raise funds as well as raise awareness outside the country on the plight of these women in an innovative way: through non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
Inspired by stories like Hana’s, the Emirati collective asks international artists to create NFTs to sell for whatever amount it will cost erase a woman’s debt and get her out of jail. The organizations also hope the project will attract attention outside Egypt and help accelerate legal change in the country.
“Most of the female prisoners are there because of poverty,” Nawal Mustafa, founder of the CFPA and recipient of the 2018 Hope Maker Award sponsored by the ruler of Dubai, told Al-Monitor. “They are more victims than criminals. The stories are very painful.
“What we wanted to do was shed light on this issue in an effective and modern way. In a way that would actually draw global rather than local attention to this issue,” Reham Mufleh, managing director of Horizon FCB Dubai, told Al-Monitor. “It’s a local topic that the world doesn’t know much about, and NFTs are another trending topic. We wanted to bring them together,” she noted.
The severity of the gharemat law is a legacy of the French judicial system, which inspired Egypt for its first penal code. A 2018 thesis study by an Arab researcher Nivert El Sherif at the American University in Cairo found that even today, the penal code provides for fines and prison terms of up to three years.
Creditors often take advantage of borrowers’ vulnerability or lack of legal knowledge to defraud them, according to the study and groups working in this area. After their release from prison, many of these women face serious difficulties in reintegrating due to the strong stigma attached to prison, Mustafa said.
The women who end up behind bars or on the run under this law are often loan guarantors or mothers who need money to marry off their children. There are also many cases where women need money to meet urgent medical expenses or to pay for their children’s education. And although there are no clear figures on how many women are imprisoned or persecuted each year for this reason, it is believed to represent a very high percentage of Egypt’s total prison population, including men. persecuted for the same reason.
“They couldn’t afford small installments to buy refrigerators, televisions or ovens for their small houses. And because they are very poor, they bought these things in installments,” Mustafa said, adding, “Sometimes it is also due to illness of a family member.”
initiative, “Break the Chains with Blockchain“, was launched on March 21, Mother’s Day in Egypt. In the first week, it sold 11 NFTs. Each case, says Mufleh, is chosen by the CFPA, which verifies the stories. The collective Emirati then contacts an artist to create an NFT inspired by the story. Hana’s NFT case sold for $484, the price of his freedom. Buyers cannot be found.
So far, collaborating artists have come from the United States, Brazil, Egypt and Portugal, and more are waiting for their help. The main objective, note Mufleh and Mustafa, is not so much to free women individually, as there are thousands of cases in Egypt and other organizations are also fundraising, but to raise awareness of the issue of a catchy way.
“We didn’t just want to raise money for this cause. We wanted to show and feature specific stories of specific women, and each NFT was created to represent each of those women’s stories,” Mufleh said. “We wanted to take this regionally and globally and create awareness and draw attention to this issue.”
Mustafa also started a program in 2014 to help these women with training and new job opportunities. The organization also offers psychological support and education on the law. In cooperation with Egyptian parliamentarians and public figures, they are also pushing for legal change, which Mustafa sees as the main goal.
“We’re trying to fix the problem at the root,” she said. “The law, in my opinion, and my experience, are essential to solving the problem in the right way,” she added, “for the sake of the thousands of people put in prison because of this unjust article.”