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

Over 12 percent of humanity contributes to one of the 3 million cooperatives on the planet. Cooperatives not only stimulate local economies, but also act as a vehicle for bringing opportunity and profit to people worldwide who otherwise would not be actors in the formal sector of the economy. This tangible empowerment is perhaps best embodied by the female cooperatives in Al Haouz province, Morocco.

This progress, though commendable and remarkable, is just the first step. The path to sustainable development is not easily achieved. Through their partnership and work with the High Atlas Foundation and Farmer to Farmer (F2F) program, the cooperatives of Al Haouz province were given the skills training necessary to grow tremendously. They embody what is possible with this support and facilitation of development.

Most women in these cooperatives could not read or write, but now they are taking literacy classes at the co-op and are able to maintain their revenues, expenses, or costs through the F2F record-keeping assignments.

However, the COVID-19 crisis disrupted the value chains for these women’s cooperatives in Morocco. The ensuing government-mandated national quarantine has disrupted them as well, leaving women and their families without reliable sources of income. Moreover, due to restricted physical mobility, the local markets have been closed, making access to commercial platforms impossible. “We thought about using E-marketing, but it was difficult for us, we had to be supported so we could directly sell our products through online platforms to minimize financial losses,” explains Malika from Aljamaane cooperative, located in the Setti Fadma rural municipality in the Al Haouz province.It is a cooperative with low potential and therefore easily suffered significant losses. However, the women did not stop producing Moroccan couscous and herbs.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, with the weekly local markets closed, it was very difficult for us to find a solution to sell our products,” adds a member of Aljamaane cooperative. "When a young man from our village agreed and volunteered to sell our products outside of the rural area. We were able to sell and to negotiate product prices with clients through him, allowing us to take advantage of this unique opportunity under difficult circumstances” she concludes.

Despite the pandemic, members of the women-led cooperative Aboughlou continue working on preparing Moroccan cookies, baked foods, and dried plants, with the approval of local authorities, while respecting physical distancing and other prevention measures to stop the spread of the virus.

The cooperative started in 2016 with 10 women from one village. Now, there are 30 women from five different villages actively participating.

The women that comprise this cooperative grow Calendula, Saffron, Rose geranium, Verbena…, among other herbs that are well known for their health benefits. These herbs are then bought by health food, grocery and cosmetic stores as well as herbalists, delicatessens, and others. However, preventive lockdown measures led to the closure of the cooperative's nursery, and its drying and packaging units, thus interrupting the value chain and, with it, the sustainability of the cooperative's income-generating activities. If these women stopped working in their cooperative and nursery, an entire season’s worth of labour and yield would go to waste.

The Amzarou cooperative in Tidili Messfioua, a municipality in the Al Haouz Province, faces similar challenges as Aljamaan. “Climate constraints and the COVID-19 crisis taught women in Tidili Messfioua to not depend solely on a single agricultural activity,” explains Sanae, secretary of the Amzarou Cooperative, where women are particularly concerned about their barley and olive harvest. “To be able to meet their financial needs, women must diversify their agricultural activities to include livestock, mixed farming, plant production and even ecological tourism.”

In response to this situation, the Amzarou cooperative, recently established in 2020 by local women, took a bold chance after an Imagine workshop organized by HAF to create the cooperative and produce pastries. Currently, they have started working on multi-production by adding new activities like verbena production and preparing for poultry farming to obtain a good collection of eggs intended for marketing. The Amzarou cooperative have become able to work along the entire agro-ecological chain, from cultivation and production to transformation, packaging and commercialization thanks to the F2F volunteers who worked with them. These women truly set an example of what is possible when given support and opportunity.

While the pandemic exposes and exacerbates different forms of inequalities and vulnerabilities, it also makes clear that women are actors of change and are capable of responding to a crisis of such magnitude.

When considering all these astonishing circumstances, it is obvious these women, who are successfully managing their own well-established cooperatives, are extraordinary exceptions. But that should not be the case. It is just and right to commend the women of these cooperatives, but the ladies of the cooperatives Aljamaane, Aboughlou and Amzarou are a much-needed reminder not only of what is possible but of what should be.

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On January 12, the Amazigh people celebrated their New Year 2972 which corresponds to the Gregorian calendar of 2022, Hebrew calendar of 5783, and lunar calendar of 1443. They refer to it as Yannayer which means January in both Amazigh and in Arabic. It is also called Ighf n ousggas, Asggas amynou, which translates to new year. The Amazigh calendar devotes much attention to farming traditions, especially during the plowing, harvesting and planting seasons. This traditional Amazigh occasion celebrates the previous year's bountiful harvest season in the hopes that the next season will be even more fruitful.

Food is a very important part of the celebration. Between January 12 and 14 of every year, the Amazigh prepare many different dishes. During the Amazigh New Year, I was based in Tissfane and surrounded by communities celebrating Yennayer. I asked my landlord Belaid what his family typically cooks for the holiday in Cimid village, Tissfane. He said they prepare  Tagulla/ Tarwayt based on barley flour  and then hide a date pit and a piece of goat or bull or sheep fat inside the dish. It is believed that whoever finds the pit will have a good harvest, but for those who  find the piece of fat will rear more sheep and goats.

Youssef and I met the adherents of Tigmi Cooperative in the village of Tigmi n Turg (the house of water) where they were having their weekly meeting. We approached them to ask about why they had been collecting money from their members. They replied that they would be celebrating Yannayer and therefore buying and preparing traditional foods to celebrate communally.

Youssef asked them why they had chosen to celebrate at the cooperative. The answer was that they hoped their nursery and their cooperative, which was supported by HAF, would be productive and successful. They also said this year was a special one, as they are doing it for the very nursery that had united them. Their nursery contains 1200 carob trees and 1200 Argan trees, and in the village of Tigmi n Turg, Youssef has delivered 4000 olive trees this year.

Every year, HAF has the tradition of planting trees on  January 17 with its partners in different locations throughout Morocco, such as schools, cemeteries and universities. The chosen date marks the beginning of the season, which is one of two best times of the year to plant trees in Morocco. This year, the date also coincides with the Hebrew New Year of 5783. Additionally, Abrahamic religions encourage planting trees and in Amazigh legends, the tree stands for bonding and continuity.

On January 17, we joined the students and two of the teachers of Ighir n Islan primary school to plant olive trees with 14 students, ten of which were girls and four boys. This was a very special occasion for all of us to contribute to preserving the environment and to share moments of fun and laughter while celebrating Yennayer and HAF’s annual tree planting day. We learned about climate change and tree planting. This was a chance to discuss olive tree planting in particular. The members of Tigmi Cooperative in Tigmi n Turg village joined us at the school and helped with planting the olive trees.

The children were previously taught about the environment and climate change, hence, they were interactive while facilitating the event and explaining the objective of the activity. They have been excited about planting trees and they promised us that they will take care of their trees. Taking ownership of the trees and committing to preserve them brought us one step closer to reaching HAF’s goals toward sustainability. Following their visit to join us at the school, the women of the Tigmi cooperative left and planted their tree by the nursery in Tigmi n Turg village. 

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There is only one thing required to change one’s life: willingness.

On December 7th, the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) team consisting of Zineb, Houria, and Lahcen visited the Daraa Lachhab cooperative in the village of Douar Chouirij, in the Sidi Badhaj commune, Haouz Province, Marrakech.

The aim of this visit was to meet with the women to see how the Farmer to Farmer (F2F) team can provide technical assistance to their cooperative in order to grow and improve their products.

Their main activity is livestock, but they are aiming to expand their activities and need a detailed business plan to get funds from the government. These women are willing to upgrade their technical knowledge first and be familiar with the administrative steps they need to go through during the set-up of their cooperative. The HAF team suggested that all the technical assistance these women need could be provided through its F2F program.

The team also suggested that starting with an IMAGINE workshop would be beneficial to empower the women and make them aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. Afterwards, they can benefit from other workshops conducted by experts in the field they need knowledge about.

Being at the starting line of a long race might be discouraging sometimes, but these women have what it takes to cross the finish line. They have a willingness to go through long roads in order to expand their project and, most importantly, to empower themselves.

It always feels good to hear that groups of women in rural areas are cooperating for the improvement of the situation of women in their communities, and the High Atlas Foundation will always be glad to provide assistance whenever it is needed.

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On December 09, a Farmer to Farmer (F2F) team conducted an IMAGINE workshop for 18 members of Nissae Tinmel Cooperative in Douar Tinmel, Ijoukak Commune, al Haouz Province.

These women were eager as this was the first training they ever attended. At the same time, they were a little bit shy; that was when a member of the team broke the ice by giving the team a clear idea about their projects. Soon, the workshop was launched and the women committed to participating in what the facilitator was presenting.

What grabbed my attention the most was the openness of these women throughout the day: they came out of their shells as they absorbed the main keys and terms of the training.

Another good characteristic that these women possess is honesty. They were ready to admit their flaws and ready to pursue CHANGE:

“Fear is what holds most of us back from realizing our dreams. We always wait for others to enter our world in order to help us know our dreams without stepping out of our comfort zone,’’ said Ouidad.

The facilitator asked two questions that brought out the best from these women. The first had to do with their strength, and in this they demonstrated cooperation and confidence: “Relying on me in every step,” “making the others happy,” “being encouraged,” and “helping the others” were some of their answers.

Switching to their weaknesses, the women did not feel ashamed to share honestly among each other: “Being illiterate,” “being disappointed,” and “being unable to provide my kids with things they need” were the common answers.

These women’s showed that they want to make their lives better, and they have a willingness and commitment as keys to the change they yearn for.

One of the other good qualities these women possess is cooperation, and this is clearly demonstrated in the photo showing the literate women helping the illiterate ones understand a workshop’s exercise.

It is impressive how they committed with full emotion to the four days of training. They laughed, cried, shared their fears, and, most importantly, encouraged each other. Indeed, that is the true meaning of a cooperative.

What was most noticeable about these women and grabbed my attention is that they all have a special sparkle in their eyes. They are all eager to learn and improve themselves. One of the beneficiaries said that she was saving money in order to go visit a psychologist, but this workshop gave her an opportunity to talk her heart out, talk about her fears and her worries. ‘I feel I am lucky,’ she said.

Getting positive feedback at the end of each Imagine workshop gives us energy and desire to empower every woman in Morocco.

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When I think about my conversations with members of the High Atlas Foundation, I realize there are a list of challenges in Morocco’s development. Morocco has untapped potential. There is a plethora of smart, educated people who are willing to work yet are overlooked. Women across Morocco, unfortunately, fall into this category. Luckily for Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, she had the resilience to overcome gender inequality and pursue her dream of opening Amal, while helping to build an empire of women who can one day do the same. I write of Nora's story in hopeful spirits that her determination and passion will inspire other women to follow.

Nora was born in Salé, near Rabat, with parents who were drawn to Morocco for a less materialistic life that was more spiritual and meaningful. Her family moved to California to become teachers when she was a young girl. It was there that she gained her independent spirit by going to the grocery store by herself at age three. Nora moved back to Morocco at a still  young age, but this time to Marrakech. She describes it as a sleepy town in the time before large-scale development, a place where you would frequently meet people you knew because it was that small. 

So, why Nora? How did she become a successful, powerful business woman, and why have others not done the same? Nora is what you would call an “empath”—someone who finds it worse to see someone else in trouble than herself. She does not like the sense of powerlessness and wants to make things right for people no matter how much she knows them. However, she never imagined herself in a life of service. It happened much later, just happenstance, and nothing in her life had prepared her for it. She traces it back to a moment, at the age of 26, when a beggar on the streets once said to her, “Every day has a provision from God.” How is there a world we created where homelessness is the reality? How can we all participate in this world? Nora did not have a choice; she felt she had witnessed human pain and suffering in a way for which she couldn’t look away.

Changing people’s lives for the better is about immediate action and perseverance. Nora began to write emails to friends and families in search of support. Over time, she became involved with helping more women. For about five to six years, she collected direct donations and conducted informal fundraising. She became exhausted and emotionally drained. What was going to happen the minute the donations ceased? All she had worked so hard to achieve would be lost. She felt compassionate, but not intelligent. 

She then saw the Casablanca version of what would soon be Amal in Marrakech. “I didn’t feel big enough or powerful enough to do that. It was nowhere close to a reality I could manifest.” Little did she know, when you start with one woman, as she did in 2011, it would develop into something bigger, as happened in 2012 when the Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant officially came to be. It is a non-profit organization in Marrakesh, Morocco, that helps disadvantaged women gain work experience by training them in the preparation of Moroccan and international food. 

From the outside, it may look like Nora did all of this with ease. As you can see, she put everything she had into making Amal the success it is today. And yet still, there is a conflicting juxtaposition between the challenge and the outcome. “There is a big burnout rate when working in development. Despite all of this promise, a lot of people in positions of authority are not treating those as they should. It is a constant tug and pull. At times, everything is going great, and at other moments, everything comes crashing down.”

Women’s empowerment is more than just a capitalist definition of women getting paid for labor. Nora reflects on her time spent at Amal and notes that each woman has a different beginning of their story. Some come in with a lot of confidence while others come in with an obvious difficulty in even making eye contact because they don’t believe what they are saying holds value. Through all the trials and tribulations, Nora took her passion, an idea, no resources, and built a women's cooperative where over 300 women have gone through the program, with many more to come.

There is a quote from Nora that will stick with me forever, and translates to how Morocco should approach incorporating women into sustainable development. “Building on your call to action, there is never a convenient time to do this. There’s never a convenient time to be brave, so be brave now.”

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High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @AtlasHigh
Project Leader:
Fatima Zahra Laaribi
Marrakech, Morocco
$30,982 raised of $50,000 goal
161 donations
$19,018 to go
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