Egyptian women in debt face jail time and stigma

STORY: In Egypt, women who've fallen into debt say the cost of it goes far beyond the financial.

They face jail time, then social stigma and struggle to rebuild their lives.

The issue comes amid an economic crisis, which has seen Egypt's annual inflation rates soar to more than 30%.

As many as 60% of the population is estimated to be below - or close to - the poverty line.

This mother of three spoke to Reuters anonymously due to the risk of social stigma.

She says had to hide from the police after receiving a prison sentence.

"(I lived in) fear and horror, I couldn't sleep, until now I can't sleep. This sense of threat is a big problem. Just imagining that the police will knock on your door and I have daughters, to go down the street with the police escorting you, it feels like death, slow death."

It happened four years ago.

Her orphaned niece was getting married and she had bought household appliances on credit.

But she couldn't pay the nearly $1,700 principal selling corn on the street - let alone tackle the high interest.

Her creditor reported her to the police.

NGO 'Children of Female Prisoners Association' - which helped her pay - says her situation is far too common.

“These women’s conditions are very difficult,” says Lamia Magdy with the group.

Jail time is just the start of it.

When women get out, Magdy says, it’s often hard to find a job with a criminal record.

The issue of so-called “prisoners of poverty” came under the spotlight earlier this year.

President Abdal Fattah al-Sisi granted pardons to male and female debtors in March.

Eighty-five prisoners were released, according to the Interior Ministry.

Another NGO called that move a “ray of light” - but says it’s just a drop in the bucket.

The Al-Masry Foundation has seen as many as 100,000 cases of indebted men and women facing legal trouble or jail in 13 years.

Advocates have floated ideas like cooperatives to help.

They say illness and severe poverty are the main reasons people fall into debt.