The problem of Al-Gharemat (female debtors) is one that perhaps few people knew about until recent years, when the media began to report on the growing numbers of women in Egypt experiencing issues of personal debt.
Many of Al-Gharemat resort to borrowing money to help their families improve their economic condition or buy wedding materials for their daughters. If they then find themselves unable to pay back the debt on time or act on behalf of a relative who fails to pay, they may find themselves facing terms in prison.
“I have signed loans worth LE100,000 because I am buying wedding supplies for my daughter. I have already bought her two washing machines and a 50-inch LCD TV, but I want to buy her another one because all my relatives bought their daughters these things,” said Um Mahmoud, a domestic worker in Cairo.
“My daughter should not go to her husband’s house with less furniture than her cousins as that would be shameful,” she added.
Um Mahmoud is one of tens of thousands of often female debtors in Egypt who are buying things they cannot afford on easy credit or on other kinds of loans and then are ending up facing prison sentences for signing loan agreements or borrowing money that they are unable to pay back.
There are no official figures for the overall number of debtors in Egypt today, but some associations estimate the number to be about 30,000.
The state in partnership with NGOs has been addressing the problem for years by releasing some female debtors on special occasions like Mother’s Day and on national holidays. A presidential decree was issued last month to release more. The state has also set up initiatives like Prisons Without Debtors (PWD) and committees like the National Committee for the Welfare of Debtors (NCWD) in its bid to help.
PWD was established under the auspices of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in 2018 and is run by the Tahia Masr (Long Live Egypt) Fund. It aims to provide social support, healthcare, education, and training for sectors of society in need and has funds of LE12.2 million. It can help to pay off the debts of women released from prison, acting with NGOs like the Misr Al-Khair Foundation. The project covers all the governorates and has thus far helped some 1,000 individual cases, according to its website.
Those women helped by the Fund have been empowered under the slogan “a healthy and productive family” to help them get out of a state of economic dependency and be able to provide an income independently through a package of economic, social, and health programmes. Some cases may be referred to the ministry of social solidarity to register them with the Takaful wa Karama (Solidarity and Dignity) cash-transfer programmes.
PWD has also coordinated with the Anna Al-Masry (I am the Egyptian) Foundation to provide micro-loans for cases after examining their status, with some 66 having been helped thus far.
The NCWD was formed in 2020, also upon the directions of President Al-Sisi, to take preventive measures to protect people who are unable to borrow. It provides alternatives for those in danger of falling into debt by providing opportunities for micro-credit and services that aim to help them generate incomes. It also improves the living conditions of former debtors, helping them to get back on their feet.
HELPING DEBTORS: “I have two daughters who are both married now, but I didn’t resort to borrowing money to provide them with dowries,” said Sayed Abdel-Razek, a Cairo taxi-driver.
“I frankly told their suitors that I would buy them the wedding supplies I could afford and nothing more before they got engaged. They respected me for being frank and married my daughters anyway. I wish everyone would behave in the same way, so they would not end up in prison for borrowing money.”
However, not everyone behaves like Abdel-Razek, and some end up as debtors in need of help to pay their debts and, in some cases, to release them from prison.
Established in 1999 by a group of students from the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, Resala is an NGO working under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Solidarity and offering help to the needy. It is also one of the NGOs offering help to debtors in Egypt.
Adel Abdel-Fattah is executive director of the Resala debtors’ relief programme, explaining that it started eight years ago. “We offer help to both men and women stuck with debts, especially female debtors,” he said, adding that they focus on mothers and female breadwinners who have been given prison sentences for not being able to pay their debts.
“We check their cases, negotiate for their release, and pay their debts for them,” Abdel-Fattah said, adding that of course they first make sure that a person asking for assistance really has an authentic case because there have been cases of fraud. “We have to make sure that an applicant has not been convicted in any other similar cases. Once we have done this, in most cases we help them start their own project to make a living,” he said.
“We aim at helping families who face debts because one of their members bought her daughter wedding supplies and signed loans and later went to prison for not being able to pay her debts,” Abdel-Fattah said.
“Another situation may be because a member of the family needed an operation and got stuck with debts and went to prison because of them. There have also been cases of a family that struggled to buy food supplies and then got stuck with debts,” he said.
Resala helps families in governorates including Cairo, Giza, Fayoum, Beni Sweif, Assiut, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan, to name a few. They try to cover as many of the governorates as possible. According to information from 2021, in 2020 Resala helped 22 debtors pay their debts and brought wedding supplies for 75 brides so that their parents would not need to borrow money. They also helped families start 442 small projects, provided 560 others with jobs, and organised 20 lectures to raise awareness about the issue.
The group raises awareness about the issue of debts and helps to make sure that the families they help never resort to borrowing again by providing them with training and helping them to find decent jobs, Abdel-Fattah said.
“We are working on one village at a time. We pay their debts for them, train them in different crafts through our crafts department, organise job fairs for them through our employment department, or help them start their own projects through our project department. We try to help them in every way we can,” he said, adding that they have accumulated significant experience of this sort of work.
“We are now working on expanding the idea of providing vulnerable families with projects to prevent the problem of debt from growing. This is through a protocol we have signed with the Ministry of Local Development worth LE5 million that will last for a year, allowing us to start more projects for the families. We are currently focusing on Cairo, Giza, Fayoum, and Beni Sweif to help poor families there start their own projects and so prevent them from falling into the trap of debt.”
WEDDING SUPPLIES: Mariam Nessim, a senior student at the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University, organised an awareness campaign as her graduation project with 11 of her colleagues about debtors in Egypt.
The project centred around a documentary, Sana Walla Aktar (A Year or More), about women in rural and urban areas in Egypt who buy marriage supplies for their daughters and consequently fall into debt. Some of them may then end up in prison because they are unable to pay back the money they have borrowed.
The documentary looks at the reasons behind the phenomenon and suggests methods of solving it by displaying the real-life stories of women debtors from the lower middle and poorer classes in Egypt.
“We chose this issue because it is an important cause that deserves more attention. The documentary is about the poorer classes that live in the countryside. We especially speak about debtors who fall into debt by buying wedding supplies and do not think about the consequences of the debt,” Nessim said, adding that most of the people in the film are from Qalioubiya, Sharqiya, and Cairo.
One of the major problems that faced in filming the documentary was that NGOs refuse to offer details about debtors in order to respect their privacy. However, they managed to overcome this problem by reaching some of the debtors through their relatives. After getting their permission, they went to their homes and filmed mothers and daughters, though sometimes there were challenges in convincing them to take part in a documentary
“We filmed the way people would take the wedding supplies to the bride’s house and realised that some people would buy more things than the bride really needed,” Nessim said. “Unfortunately, some of the debtors who borrowed money and went to prison for it and then were released said that they believed that what they had done was right and that they would do it again if needed.”
“On the other hand, there were those who said that they should not have borrowed money in the first place and that what they did was wrong and that they would not risk going to prison again,” she added.
One aim of the campaign was to use the documentary to increase the sense of responsibility. “We try to convince the parents of brides-to-be that it is not about the quantity of what they can buy them and the social pressure that they say they feel to get their daughter what her cousin or her neighbour got. We remind them that it’s about what they can afford and what they really need,” she said.
“In the documentary, we focused on the scene of moving the wedding supplies because sometimes the parents of the bride will carry empty boxes so that they will look good in front of their relatives,” she added.
“But they could end up in prison because of this kind of social hypocrisy, and that would not make them look good at all. Some people borrow from shop owners in their districts, and because they are unable to pay back their debts, then go to other shops out of town to borrow more and buy more supplies. Some people do not learn from their mistakes, while others discover that borrowing is not the right solution.”
The group is gathering funds to help some of the debtors pay off their debts, but they do not have large sums at present. Instead, they post advice on their Facebook page to raise awareness of the issue, and they have already posted a trailer of their documentary.
“Maybe if someone sees our posts or forwards them to a person considering borrowing money, they may not do it when they see the examples in our documentary. They may decide to take the right path after seeing the consequences,” Nessim said.
“I think there are many debtors in Egypt like the people in the documentary,” she added. “We can’t control how they behave, but society, especially the media, can shed more light on them because all they think about is giving their children better lives than theirs. For example, we met one woman who practically lives on the street but still managed to buy wedding supplies for her daughter through borrowing.”
“There should be more funds for such people to help them pay their debts,” she said. “Their daughters will not be happy if they see their parents in prison for borrowing money to buy them wedding supplies.”
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.