The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education

by High Atlas Foundation
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education
The Bernard Mejean Fund for Girls' Education

On October 11, 2021, the United Nations will be joined by other UN agencies, NGOs, and CSOs to celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child to promote the advancement of female rights across the world. The origins of this global celebration began in 1995 at the World Conference on Women in Beijing where the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action outlined an ambitious and progressive plan to advance female rights; this declaration was the first of its kind globally, specifically emphasizing the need for gender equality across the world. On December 19, 2011, the UN General Assembly ratified and adopted Resolution 66/170, committing to the continual recognition of girls’ rights and the distinct challenges they face across the world.

This year’s theme for the International Day of the Girl Child is entitled, “Digital Generation, Our Generation,” and centers discussions around gender inequality regarding access to technology and digital literacy. According to the UN, almost 50% of the world’s population does not have access to the internet, with women and girls being less likely to have this access than men. In fact, in some parts of the world, up to 70% of women and girls do not have access to the internet nor do they know how to use digital technologies. Moreover, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issues of technology access and gender inequality, especially in low- and middle-income countries. In response to the ever-increasing challenges faced by girls globally, the Gender Equality Forum (GEF) took place in June 2021, launching a five-year initiative with international governments, corporations, NGOs, and CSOs to fight for equal access to technological innovations.

The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) is one such CSO, based in Morocco, that prioritizes girls’ empowerment and gender equality. HAF has engaged over 225 girls (under the age of 18) over the course of dozens of four-day Imagine empowerment workshops, which focus on personal growth, sexuality and the body, emotions, relationships, money, and spirituality. In attending the workshop, these girls have found support and encouragement in finding and utilizing their voices and in taking steps toward achieving their personal goals. They have learned about legal protections and social justice in Morocco. And they have even achieved financial independence, promoting change in their local communities. Additionally, HAF advocates girls’ access to education and helps to increase girls’ retention by partnering with local communities and schools to install water and build toilets for classrooms in the most rural parts of the High Atlas Mountains.

With a global population predicted to reach eight billion people by 2023, gender equality for both women and girls is more important than ever. Not only do governments, organizations, and corporations need to incorporate female empowerment into their communities, but individuals at all levels of society must work to bridge the gender gap, ensuring equal rights for women and girls in present and future generations.

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My first ever class at university was called Comparative Politics, and for reasons I will explain, I don’t think it’ll ever be a class that I will forget. I remember walking into the mostly full lecture hall on the first day of classes, after having gotten lost in the building. As I took a seat, the professor began lecturing. He was eccentric and passionate, pacing as he spoke at the head of the room. As the lesson went on, it dawned on me that whenever he would create examples using a hypothetical political scientist, he would use she/her pronouns. It was a subtle detail of his lecture, but one that had a profound impact on me. Later in the semester, he would acknowledge that he made a conscious effort to use female pronouns along with male pronouns to ensure that the women he taught believed that they too could be political scientists and policymakers. That even though political science is a male-dominated field, there is a place and a necessity for women to join.

Before college, I was not used to hearing my teachers use female pronouns in association with male-dominated professions. Despite the fact that many of the women in my life worked as doctors, computer engineers, and economists, it was not often that I heard these professions casually be defaulted to a woman. Admittedly, it was just a fact of life to me although one that I would like to see change. My professor’s goal to make the women in his classes feel included was incredibly meaningful to me. His questions and lectures were not abstract. Rather, his choice of language made the issues and decisions we discussed feel very real to me. I felt like an active community member in the class and an equal among my male peers. This small detail of his teaching strategy had a greatly positive effect on how I saw myself among my male peers.

When I think back to this class, I also think about the computer programming course I took that very same semester. I think about how in a lecture of about 200 students, fewer than 50 were women. I remember my computer programming professor standing in front of class for some time talking about the importance of women in STEM, and never mentioned the topic again. I think about how our homework and readings never featured women programmers. I remember this class very differently and more coldly than how I remember my political science course.

In high school, I would not often think about my position as a woman in academic spaces save for the occasional STEM class. In university, it was something that occupied my mind almost daily. I am reminded of the Jaggar passage wherein he states that “women typically have power and influence in political and economic life” and “display autonomy from men in their pursuits.” However, these facts do not deny that male dominance in society exists. The quote goes on to say that “[male dominance] seems to be an aspect of the organization of collective life, a patterning of expectations and beliefs which gives rise to imbalance.” I felt this passage best explained how I experience male-dominated spaces.

I rarely see any direct indication that men are actively controlling or deterring women from joining these spaces. I have seen women hold positions of power in these fields and act with a sense of autonomy and authority. However, I am a witness to how male dominance manifests in our perceptions of the world. Part of its manifestation is my surprise at hearing she/her pronouns in a political science class and my habituation and even expectation of the lack of women in computer programming classes. I could not see myself as a computer scientist because I thought the field was inaccessible. There seemed to be a lack of opportunity for people who looked like me. Or maybe I was not ambitious or imaginative enough. Either way, I find that male dominance as it manifests itself in my own life seems so ingrained into the fabric of society that moments of inclusivity and female empowerment in spaces where I do not expect for them to arise feel shocking. These experiences make me realize that feminism necessitates a re-evaluation of cultural norms and ideas.

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As a person grows, they take on a societal identity which will dictate what they wear, how they act and speak, and how they feel about themselves in the context of their society. As gender is learned, it can be assumed that the cultural constructs of each society propel certain understandings of gender roles. The United States and other Western countries provide a distinct cultural framework for feminism which seeks gender equality and envisions a world where women are seen just as capable as men. However, their specific theoretical framework usually cannot be directly implemented in non-Western countries.

While the pursuit for female empowerment is present worldwide, the female identity differs considerably in each culture. Hence, it is not possible to depend solely on western academia regarding feminism and female empowerment to make sustainable policies that will work in Morocco.

Inspired by the Empowerment Institute’s mission, HAF has created a unique framework for the empowerment of women and girls in Morocco, which seeks to present them with all available opportunities which they can choose to their liking. This was based on the Empowerment Institution’s “Imagine” self-discovery workshops. In this project, HAF aims to train university students and rural women to be social change agents.

HAF wants to strengthen women and girls by providing tools to advocate and act on their needs and goals. The best way for a person to understand their needs and wants is to interrogate their identity and understand their positionality. HAF does this by posing a few simple questions to participants: Where am I now? Where do I want to go? What do I need to change to get there? What is my next growth step? These crucial questions help participants identify their obstacles in specific areas of life, and learn how to turn them into a core belief instead of a limiting belief that inhibits them.

HAF has conducted 39 Empowerment workshops since 2016. A total of 922 participants, predominantly women and girls, have been trained in workshops to recognize their human agency. Part of this initiative was to establish cooperatives which helped women cover their daily expenses, pay bills, and have created jobs. Months after the workshops, HAF has identified economic and personal growth as its primary impacts. Building community has immensely helped women face their fears and continues to let them explore their rights according to their comfort.

HAF has done this by adapting a Moroccan methodology for female empowerment using capacity building and the legal family code of Moudawana. The penal code addresses issues related to the family, including the regulation of marriage, polygamy, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Using numerous needs assessment and participatory planning, HAF found a uniquely Moroccan way to address female empowerment for the Moroccan community. Integrating the Empowerment Institution’s “Imagine” program with Moudawana has enabled women to learn about legal protections and further social justice.

Feminism and empowerment initiatives have been critiqued by women of developing nations as reflecting solely the desires of white, middle-class Western women. Many Western academia regarding women’s empowerment isolate gender from class and the legacy of colonialism. Thus, it is tremendously important that HAF has found a way to address Moroccan problems in a Moroccan way.

Although women and girls worldwide can have similar struggles, designing a sustainable empowerment program is only possible if cultural beliefs are respected. HAF’s approach learns from the critical parts of Western academia and transforms it in an activist, decolonial, and bottom-up approach which seeks to empower Moroccan women and girls by giving them the knowledge and strength they need to thrive in Morocco. It builds solidarity amongst men and women which creates new ways of being and belonging, while furthering sustainable development goals.

According to the World Bank, there is a growing body of evidence which illustrates that when women are placed in the center of a development agenda, the efficiency in the management of institutions and resources increase. Also, female leaders can have beneficial impacts on social norms. HAF’s mission to empower women will greatly benefit Morocco’s development agenda. Evaluations done by HAF have shown that women are using their newfound incomes, from the cooperatives, have invested it in their families, namely their children. This will lead to greater health and education for Moroccan youth in the long run.

While the fight for empowerment has a long way to go, HAF has found a way to approach it both ethically and effectively. By adopting Western ideas of empowerment into a Moroccan context, they have maximized their chances of women being receptive to their ideas. Additionally, it has enabled women and girls to understand the context and community they live in. This will enable them to become strong community leaders and empower youth to continue sustainable development in Morocco.

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August of this year will mark the one-year anniversary of the end of South Sudan’s civil war, yet recent surges of violence suggest that peace is far from being realized. These attacks by armed groups include instances of sexual violence against women and girls.

Sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) continues to be a significant characteristic in South Sudan’s conflict, threatening the livelihood and human rights of women and girls. UNICEF reports approximately 65% of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. These forms of GBV can leave women and girls with severe mental and physical health problems.

Why is the rate of sexual violence so high in South Sudan? According to human rights experts, the answer can be found in a fundamental element of South Sudan’s local economy—bride price.

In South Sudan, if a man would like to marry a woman, his family would have to pay for her, often in cows or goats, based on her negotiated value. Once women are married off, they are expected to bear many children, including daughters who are viewed as assets to acquire more cattle. Therefore, early and forced marriages are common with more than 50 percent of girls married before the age of 18. Many young girls are married to elderly suitors because those men have more assets.

The objectification and commodification of women in South Sudanese society allow for a culture in which GBV is accepted and normalized. Traditional gender roles and conditions of poverty sustain the practice of paying bride price.

The lack of women’s rights in South Sudan not only leads to suffering but also challenges efforts to promote peace. Cultural notions that women are homemakers and child-bearers drive inequity. Only 7 percent of girls finish primary school and fewer than 2 percent go on to high school. Families may also worry that girls may be sexually assaulted on their journeys to school, lowering their value and bride price. GBV prevents girls from pursuing their dreams and keeps families trapped in generational poverty. The return on education is worth re-evaluating the importance placed on paying bride price. Studies show that a single year of primary school education has been shown to increase women’s wages by up to 20% later in life.

If South Sudan is to undergo significant economic development, women and girls must have access to education. “Women have the opportunity to contribute in building this nation into a country that is stable and peaceful,” said South Sudanese activist Rita Lopidia at the inaugural Women Building Peace Award. Gender equity is intimately tied to achieving stability in South Sudan.

It is imperative that the government of South Sudan takes steps to reduce the prevalence of GBV and increase access to education. Addressing the root of this issue, begins with regulating bride price. Excessive bride prices are a burden on both men and women. Men who can not afford bride prices experience feelings of inadequacy and social seclusion. Village youths put their life at risk during livestock raids in neighboring tribes to be able to afford marriage. Women experience violence in the form of physical and sexual violence resulting from the valuation of their worth in terms of livestock. By targeting social norms that perpetuate these levels of violence, South Sudan can inspire a movement towards rehabilitation and rebuilding.

Although commonly held perceptions will not change overnight, community-based efforts towards GBV education and awareness-raising will lay the foundation for establishing lasting women’s rights laws and policies. If women can become workshop leaders, teachers, and decision-makers in implementing the peace accords, South Sudan will be able to envision a country that serves the needs of all of its people.

The real price of marriage in South Sudan is the opportunity to realize peace and stability. Although bride price is commonly paid in cows and goats, families also sacrifice the well-being of their daughters and higher earning potentials.

The rise of physical and sexual violence in recent weeks indicates that South Sudan is at risk of falling back into large-scale conflict. If South Sudan is to continue on the path of peacemaking and change conditions of underdevelopment, regulating bride prices needs to be on the agenda.

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Heart disease is a prevalent chronic disease in Morocco and has been one of the leading causes of death over the last 10 years. Heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle changes, but people must be made aware of the steps they should take to effectively curb this health concern. As heart disease is interconnected with the way we care and love our bodies, it can be addressed and, ultimately, reduced through programs that empower women to become more in touch with their bodies.

The Causes of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) and Heart Disease (HD)

There is a multitude of factors that increase the risk of heart disease globally and specifically in Morocco. The first of these is limited access to healthy foods and the subsequent consumption of excessively processed foods. In recent years, convenience has been prioritized over health when it comes to food. For example, there has been a shift from personal homegrown foods to processed crops like wheat flour and imported vegetables that use preservatives because healthy foods are more expensive and harder to access. Additionally, the country has also seen a spike in high-sugar processed foods that have been shown to negatively affect blood pressure and weight, which are precursors to heart disease. Another big risk factor is lack of physical activity, as this leads to the heart having to work extremely hard when people do exercise, thus increasing the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of activity per week for all adults to maintain good heart health; a recommendation that many people globally fail to meet. Tobacco use is also a huge concern and risk because smoking puts extra strain on the heart by tightening arteries. The smoke can create plaque inside the arteries that narrows the space where blood may flow. In a 2017-2018 study, approximately 13.4 percent of the Moroccan population used some form of tobacco, and 9/10 smokers began before the age of 18, making tobacco use a factor to especially monitor. Many risk factors can contribute to cardiovascular disease, but these are just a few of the most significant that contribute to CVD.

The Issue of Heart Disease in Morocco

It is important to recognize that heart disease is prominent worldwide, but it is a more serious issue in middle- to low-income countries due to the lack of prevention programs, healthcare access, and limited early detection methods. In comparison, Morocco has no early detection methods, whereas any high-risk individuals in the U.S. tend to be diagnosed earlier on in their lives. Additionally, in rural areas of Morocco, the limited access to healthcare resources is a big issue once the disease has been developed because methods of treatment are less effective or inadequate. Therefore, it is key to focus on primary prevention mechanisms like lifestyle changes to try to prevent heart disease from occurring in the first place.

Lifestyle Changes & the Future

After addressing the risk factors for HD and the extent of the issue have been addressed, the next step is to discuss how people can work towards preventing CVD. To lower the risk of developing heart disease, there are a variety of recommendations related to risk factors: stop tobacco use, reduce salt intake, consume natural homegrown fruits and vegetables, increase daily physical activity, and watch for warning signs like high blood pressure, diabetes, and weight gain. These prevention mechanisms are the ideal method in changing the course of heart disease in Morocco and can prevent additional comorbidities, including stroke.

Heart Disease & Empowerment Workshops

The morbidity of heart disease can be looked at through the lens of empowerment, including loving our bodies. In the High Atlas Foundation’s Imagine empowerment workshops, a module on the body focuses on how it provides us with the ability to sense earth’s pleasures and its function as a vessel for ideas, vitality, and feelings. The focus on care for the body has the potential to contribute to the prevention of heart disease in Moroccan communities. This can be done by proposing thought-provoking questions, including “How many natural foods would say you nourish your body within a week?” “How do you think exercise would help you improve your love for yourself?” and “What is one thing you are committed to doing in improving your overall health and heart health, and how will this impact your future body?”

By presenting questions like these to the participants in the workshops, it allows them to recognize how certain behaviors can have long-term effects and show how they can work towards preventing future health complications. Additionally, the use of infographics and visually appealing resources that advocate the major prevention mechanisms and how they improve the body would help aid in progress after the workshops are complete.

The Body

The body is one of the seven core components of life, and in the Imagine workshops, women focus on the current state of their body and how it will look in the future based on different activities. One of these activities is body dialogue, where women take a period of time to check in with their body to see what it needs and what is right. Another is a body vision, in which women think about how it would look to live in their ideal body outside of societal expectations.

The key to these workshops is that the thoughts and actions women take pertain to them as an individual level rather than as a collective unit. Being thought of as an average part of the group does not provide a strong sense of empowerment. This workshop module helps women to analyze current routines and mindsets and alter them to uniquely make each participant’s life better. Within the topic of heart disease, there are many actions that women do not realize are beneficial due to a lack of education on heart-healthy behaviors. When these behaviors are put into limiting beliefs and turnarounds, women can then see how their body is such a great gift - and that healthy eating is good, and exercise not a chore - but nourishment.

Many diseases are quite ambiguous as to the factors that cause them. Heart disease, however,  can be almost completely traced to how people care for their bodies. The body element of these empowerment workshops is directly integrated into heart health through diet, exercise, and limiting drug use. It is key that women are given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their bodies in order to encourage a positive mindset that can keep them healthy and prevent diseases. The same mechanisms used in helping participants improve their relationship with their bodies are the same in keeping the heart healthy, making heart disease a beneficial integration into empowerment curricula.

Conclusion

By addressing cardiovascular disease in women’s empowerment programming, we can help Moroccan women to respect and love their bodies, improve their health, and simultaneously reduce heart disease and its risk factors. These workshops not only help women to become better versions of themselves and become healthier, but they also impact society by empowering women to become more active community members. Whether they go to school after or decide to find a new career, improving women’s health through empowerment and public health efforts, Moroccan communities can be improved as a whole. As a leading cause of death in Morocco and globally, we must raise awareness of this a crucial issue towards improving the overall heart health of the Moroccan people.

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Organization Information

High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @AtlasHigh
Project Leader:
Fatima Zahra Laaribi
New York, NY United States
$23,822 raised of $90,000 goal
 
85 donations
$66,178 to go
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