Empowering Women for Democratic Participation

by High Atlas Foundation
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Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation
Empowering Women for Democratic Participation

HAF trainers provided the first two days of an IMAGINE workshop on October 23-24 in the Tazart commune in Al Haouz Province. Twenty-four women from the Attahadi Association for the Development of Rural Women were in attendance.

One woman commented, “As women in the Tazart commune, we are very strong and powerful. We just need to expand our knowledge and our experiences, so we need a good support system and people to guide us to create a project for our group.”

Other women expressed themselves as follows:
“We need to create more love in our life. We need to love ourselves first, then others.”
“We are courageous to be out of our houses and attending an IMAGINE workshop. We wish to receive other workshops in the future.”

“I didn’t go to school, and now I know how to read and write from literacy classes even though I have received negative words from people since I have a clear vision and goal.”
“We respect ourselves by caring for ourselves, being strict in our work at home, respecting others, and adapting to the change.”

“If we are not obliged to work, and we have enough money, we prefer to be volunteering, creating youth projects, supporting social work, working with associations, giving experiences and knowledge to others concerning artisans, supporting others, teaching others how to make carpets, and supporting the women for creating projects.”

One other woman summed up her feelings by saying, “I believed in myself, and I worked hard in different jobs until I built a house for myself and for my children. I can say now that life is easy if we know how to live. I’m now an independent woman, Alhamdolilah, and I would like to support others by sharing my experiences of my life with them.”

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Before you read this, I challenge you to pause and ask your body the question: how do you like the thoughts I think about you?

When we make an active choice to listen to ourselves, we access the power of introspection. But as you likely realized within the first sentence of this article, that often isn’t comfortable. It is almost taboo to honestly ask yourself how you are, and even rarer to have the skills needed to be able to listen to the response.

These skills are exactly what the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) seeks to develop within their IMAGINE empowerment workshops. The sceneranges from rural villages to bustling cities, yet the content and goal remain constant. HAF leaders guide groups of 25 Moroccan women through a 32-hour transformative experience. Ecstatic joy saturates a room where these women connect with their true selves, maybe for the first time. Turning about freely through guided dance helps the women create “turnarounds,” the term for the newly expanded beliefs that replace often deeply ingrained and harmful ones. To work through the discomfort of releasing old patterns of thought and behavior endows the women with the confidence to recognize their true potential.

HAF guides participants in goal-setting and affirmative visualizations surrounding seven core areas, including work, relationships, and sexuality. These powerful techniques are paired with practical education regarding Moroccan family law and placed in a spiritual context with passages from the Qur’an, permitting the women to understand their legal protections, pursue justice, and see themselves empowered through their spirituality.

This act of slowing down and listening is the core driving force of yoga, as well as HAF’s mission of empowerment. It forces us to switch from the mode of thinking into feeling. The conscious effort required to turn off our critical thinking brain and enter a more profoundly present state is not small and requires practice. However, there is incredible potential in the ramifications of this decision; in a study following 24 young women who identified themselves as chronically stressed, a three-month intervention of biweekly yoga classes resulted in statistically significant reductions in stress and anxiety, as well as overall improvement of physical health. Saliva samples from before versus after a 90-minute yoga class displayed a concrete and significant decrease in levels of cortisol, our bodies’ main stress hormone.

How does yoga achieve this? For one, yoga is not simply a sequence of strengthening acrobatic movements. The Sanskrit word “yoga” literally translates to “yoke” or “join.” It is an ancient Vedic philosophy that both recognizes and encourages a connection with the inherent interconnectedness of ourselves with everything in the universe. We are not separated from nature, but rather, embedded in it. This idea is not as far-fetched or spiritually lofty as one might assume, either: the widely accepted Big Bang Theory postulates that all that is, from here to the farthest edges of the universe, originated from a single point. You were once quite literally one with everything around you. Furthermore, the techniques of stretching, strengthening, breathing, and meditation are joined together in one complete practice to join your mind, body, and spirit. Yoga philosophy and teachings emerge from this idea, with scriptures emphasizing the importance of ahimsa, or non-violence.

Here enters the original question: how do you like the thoughts you think about yourself? Chances are that you haven’t been conditioned to hold yourself in very high regard, like many of the women in the IMAGINE workshops. According to ahimsa, this harm to ourselves through negative thoughts contributes to the prevalence of harm everywhere. In order to strive for better, you must first believe that you deserve it. Movement in yoga is a constant push and pull driven by the breath, steadily encouraging us to expand beyond our limits and find contentment in where we land at the moment.

The niyama or personal principle of svadhyaya encourages the importance of self-study. Yoga styles such as Yin encourage practitioners to find their edge of discomfort by holding deep tissue stretches for longer periods of time. This increases circulation and joint flexibility while opening channels of energy. Through directed breathwork, students are able to release tension and practice mental fortitude. When a negative thought or sensation interrupts the flow, yoga enables us to recognize it as a disconnection from our true presence and choose to let it go.

By enabling women to free themselves from self-constricting thought patterns, HAF promotes both personal and community growth. IMAGINE equips participants with tangible tools and support to lead lasting and meaningful development from a place of personal integrity. To date, nine groups of women have gone on to create income-generating cooperatives thoughtfully designed to further their specific community’s development. HAF continually supports these women by providing requested training related to these goals, and the groups formed through IMAGINE meet monthly thereafter to discuss current goals and progress.

As we reach the end of the article, I encourage you to take a moment for yourself to notice the ebb and flow of your breath. Return to the original question, even close your eyes if you feel comfortable, and listen. The principles of yoga and of HAF’s IMAGINE workshops are centered in this truth that acknowledging where you are is the first step to creating the life you most want.

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2 October 2021—Step by step, Douar Lakdirat will be one of the Moroccan villages that will benefit from High Atlas Foundation (HAF) services and open for the new world, enhancing the socioeconomic and environmental situation.. The first step was when the HAF staff visited the village in the Jnane Bouih commune of Youssoufia for a field study.

The next step came with the HAF leader of women’s empowerment training, Mrs. Fatima Zahra; Zineb, Sanae, and Hajiba joined her to facilitate the Imagine workshop with the women of Douar Lakdirat in June. Four days with these women gave the HAF team the opportunity to discover a powerful and capable group of women who are making positive changes in their Douar.

The third step was when Mrs. Amina, another expert trainer, continued meeting with the 23 women. The objective of this workshop is to discover what the women would like most to do and see if they are willing to create a cooperative. The participatory approach is the key to know exactly what this community wants: in this case, for their children to have the opportunity and good fortune to live in better conditions than they do. The question remains: how? To respond to this question, the workshop helps participants focus on their real needs (PA) and gives us and them the clarity of what Douar Lakdirat has as human and natural resources, and what this Douar has as challenges to resolve.

Three hours of thinking and discussing showed us that their first priorities are the primary school and the fruit trees nursery is the second priority. The result of this workshop was fourteen priorities, and one of them is creating a cooperative, among others, such as a water well for drinking and agriculture, literacy, school infrastructure and transportation, a mosque for women, a communal hammam and oven, and electricity. We explained the steps to create a cooperative, and it will be necessary to follow up with training from the Cooperation Development Office (ODCO). They know what they want 100%, so the fourth step will come soon when an ODCA member helps them to create their first local cooperative. Also, it will be great to see if there is a cooperative in Youssoufia and plan a visit for the women so they can have an idea of the cooperative.

Abdelghni and Mustapha also joined the HAF team on that visit, testing the depth and quality of the water. Mustapha was with the technician all day, providing more details in a separate report.

It's not about what we have or what we are missing, but about how we can manage and use what we have even if it is small, still knowing that we can use whatever resources we have to achieve our goals. The biggest dream will come with the smallest steps.

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The concept of empowerment is one that is referenced quite regularly in academic and activist realms as it pertains to achieving equality for underprivileged groups. However, the term ‘empowerment’ is used so frequently that it has become difficult to ascribe a single definition to it or to create a definitive list of the outcomes that it aims to achieve. In the context of global development, however, the empowerment of marginalized groups is a truly crucial element of sustainable development, as it plays a key role in increasing economic growth, education rates, and workforce/public space integration, as well as generally addressing issues of gender inequality within developing countries. 

In Morocco, similar effects have been observed through empowerment efforts undertaken by organizations like the high Atlas Foundation and other NGOs in the region, particularly through their initiatives directed at women. So, what does ‘empowerment’ really entail? And how exactly does the empowerment of women, in particular, result in these advances in development?

According to responses to a United Nations survey of individuals worldwide regarding the meaning of the term, ‘empowerment’ generally refers to a method of social development typically directed towards marginalized or disenfranchised groups that is meant to increase the ability and power of individuals and groups to make decisions about their own lives and take action as they see fit. In other words, empowerment is meant to provide people and their communities with a sense of autonomy and self-determination. One reason for the variation of definitions is that it is difficult to quantitatively measure the degree of empowerment and self-determination felt by individuals and collectives. However, empowerment activities and experiences among disenfranchised groups in developing countries, particularly those involving women, are correlated with real gains in other tangible measurements of development, and that is why incorporating empowerment programs and activities into development initiatives is crucial. In fact, the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights empowering women and girls as one of its foremost goals under its Gender Equality initiative.

Another reason that empowerment has become somewhat of an amorphous term is because it takes on a different meaning depending upon the context in which it occurs. In Morocco, HAF’s empowerment program largely focuses on personal and cooperative development and takes a rights-based, educational approach to advance women’s understanding of their rights under the the2004 Moroccan Family Code(Moudawana), of which many women, particularly those in rural areas, lack a thorough understanding. This empowerment program aims to directly address some of the main obstacles to gender equality in Morocco and provide women with the skills, knowledge, and means to overcome these obstacles within their own communities. Similar empowerment experiences have been shown to increase girls’ enrollment in schools and women’s participation in the labor force, which contribute to country-wide economic growth.

Currently, despite making up approximately 50% of Morocco’s general population, women comprise only about 21.16% of the country’s labor force. Studies have shown that Moroccan women are less likely to be active in the labor force if they are married and/or surrounded by other inactive women, even with the existence of other factors that are correlated with higher participation rates like lower fertility rates and higher education levels. By attending empowerment programs alongside other women who may have thriving businesses of their own or who financially support themselves, participants will be able to witness Moroccan women just like them claiming their own financial and social independence, which removes social pressures to conform to what is perceived as typical women’s work. Additionally, in the self-discovery elements of empowerment activities, women are aided in finding their own voices and using them within their communities. This element of empowerment aids women in establishing larger roles within community development planning processes that have the potential to increase their access to productive resources both within their household and in their communities at large.

While empowerment programs have proven to be effective in improving women’s capacities for change-making in their own lives, they cannot combat obstacles to development alone. This is because empowerment has to be accompanied by a shift in overall social attitudes and restrictive legal frameworks, as well as access to the necessary resources that will mitigate the extreme poverty that often contributes to high rates of early marriage and school dropout among Moroccan women. While there is still significant progress to be made, empowerment initiatives being taken across Morocco represent important initial steps towards ultimately reaching some of the paramount goals of development.

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This word “development” is quite heavy. It is not just a matter of improving the economic conditions of a society, but of changing lives and trying to build a better present and future. As a student from the US, it’s valuable to recognize the position that countries such as the US and others in Europe are in with respect to development. Countries have initiated projects of development focused on outcomes, without considering the needs or interests of those they are trying to help.

Development as a process often suffers from traditions of ignoring the people and human conditions on the ground. Development tends to be concerned with numbers and economic improvements rather than working on the specific outcomes for a society. Where economic solutions seem like the most effective way to improve the quality of life of those in developing countries, poverty is now being understood as less about economic needs and more about addressing underlying factors like discrimination, exploitation, and abuse. This sets the stage for human rights to enter in the discussion.

Human rights activism in Morocco rose around the 1970s, with the 1980s marking the expansion of civil society. What we have seen is that rural and indigenous groups, those who would be most affected by and involved in the development process, are often left out of human rights discourse and government policies. Additionally, there has been a distance between the language used by the larger human rights organizations and the grassroots activism on the ground. Thus, the broader world of human rights has been characterized with a lack of focus on the people and the specific needs of diverse communities throughout the country. However, with more and more groups integrating human rights approaches to their development goals, this trend has begun to change.

Development and human rights are tied together by shared norms and values, united by a common goal of building a better society for the people. A rights-based approach (RBA) to human rights, then, can enhance development goals. The Danish Institute for Human Rights notes that RBA is “based on the concept that impoverished people must be protected from illegal and unjust discrimination, dispossession, denial and disenfranchisement.” This approach helps move development away from a merely economic process. Development and human rights mutually reinforce one another, as development secures access to rights while the existence of rights enhances development. RBA shifts development as a process away from providing needs to emphasizing “society’s obligation to respond to the rights of individuals.” Here, development is increasingly focusing on humans and the extent to which they can live their lives.

Rights-based approaches in Morocco and beyond have challenged the objective tone of development, transforming the process into one that centers on humanity. The people are the agents of change involved in building their communities for themselves. For example, many ethnic communities have used social-oriented partnerships rather than market-oriented ones in order to gain support for development projects.

Rural women are another group who are increasingly articulating collective rights in opposition to the standard outcome-based approach of development. What we see here are examples of groups in Morocco who have turned development into something that values their rights as people. Moroccan human rights organizations are taking explicitly proactive human rights stances that are consistent with international human rights standards, a contrast to Western stereotypes of Arab-Islamic culture, and therefore fight against Western ideas of what the world looks like by actively better lives for the people.

The High Atlas Foundation is one of the many organizations using RBA, integrating rights into a range of issues from land rights to women’s empowerment. For example, on the issue of land, many development projects have neglected the value that rural communities place on the land itself, preferring to commodify the homes of local peoples. But HAF places value into the land, understanding it as part of the community, and helps it flourish with commitments such as tree planting.

Women’s rights is another arena where HAF acknowledges the importance of rights in development. Using the framework of Moudawana, the Moroccan family code, “HAF aims to integrate a rights-based approach into existing programs to create an inclusive women’s empowerment strategy that involves strengthening capabilities, capacities, and implementation of rights.” HAF understands that development must recognize the relationship between rights, capacities, and a sense of capacity. As a process of change, development must begin with the humans themselves, and commit to building a better world for the sake of humanity.

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High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
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Fatima Zahra Laaribi
Marrakech, Morocco
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