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

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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On Saturday, June 19, 2021, Americans officially recognized “Juneteenth” as a national holiday. Most Americans understand the holiday to be a celebration of the end of slavery brought about by the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment. However, the day is actually a recognition of when a remote enclave of enslaved people were informed of the end of slavery more than two years after its declaration and several months before the last states ratified the amendment. The difference between what many consider the holiday to celebrate and what it truly celebrates might seem negligible to some, yet it is certainly a very important distinction, recognizing both a literal and a symbolic moment for people who had been so long denied the right to physical freedom and human dignity as well as the right to education and literacy.

While the Emancipation Proclamation officially outlawing slavery was issued in September 1862, and became effective four months later, it was not until June 19, 1865—two months after the surrender of Confederate forces and the formal end of the U.S. Civil War—that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, first heard that order of emancipation read aloud by the Union military and became aware that they were free. The following year, freed people in Galveston began what became known as “Jubilee Day,” and observation of the event and its symbolism has grown gradually over the 155 years since then, becoming an officially-recognized federal holiday signed into law in 2021 by President Biden.

This holiday brings to mind the ways in which we experience individual freedom. The people of Galveston in 1865 were unaware of the declaration, unaware of the law, unaware of their status. This was not solely because they were in a remote area some distance from the seat of government but also because they lacked the literacy that would have enabled them to read the posted notices. Without information, knowledge, and learning, how is one to know one’s rights and, with those rights, envision a future for oneself?

In Morocco, there is a vital code that governs family law but that is not known to all of the people it protects—particularly women—depending on whether they live in rural areas and are literate. The Moudawana (Ar. Mudawwanat al-aHwaal al-shakhSiyyah) is the Personal Status Code that encompasses issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, self-guardianship, and child custody, among others. While first established in 1958 following the nation’s independence from France, the 2004 reform (also enshrined in the 2011 constitutional revision) addresses women’s rights and gender equality in ways that the original did not. Hence it appeased to some extent those feminist and human rights activist groups calling for more widespread attention to socioeconomic inequality and violence against women, groups such as l'Union de l'Action Féminine (UAF or Women’s Action Union).

Life and opportunity are quite different between urban and rural areas of Morocco. Some studies estimate that only about 16 percent of rural women are aware of their rights stipulated in the most recent amendments to the family code whereas 95 percent of urban women know about the code. In fact, five times as many rural women have never heard of it at all. For such women, this lack of awareness is due in a large part to an incomplete formal education since only about one-third of girls continue their schooling beyond primary level and about 60 percent of rural women are not literate. There is a direct correlation between level of education and awareness of rights with 100 percent of those with a secondary education knowing at least something about the Moudawana. Rural women are also less likely to be engaged in local governance or civil society than their urban counterparts and less likely to hold positions in the labor force or have financial independence, all factors that would increase the likelihood of awareness.

How does level of awareness impact Moroccan women? To begin, a girl who does not know that the legal age for marriage was raised from 15 to 18 and that she cannot be compelled by her father into a marriage or that she is legally entitled to schooling might believe she has no say over her own future. Likewise, a woman who does not know that she has a right to her financial assets or a right to enter into a business contract without her husband’s permission might not pursue her dream of financial contribution to her family’s income or financial independence for herself and her children. Furthermore, a woman who is unaware of her rights to a divorce or to child custody might remain in a dissatisfying marriage or, worse, continue to be physically or psychologically abused fearing the loss of her children or believing she has no options or protections.

There continue to be barriers to implementation of the laws in rural areas, as one might imagine. These include inadequate training about the reforms for judges in provincial government, paving the way for individual decisions that revert to older customs, and also the presence of a stronger sense of traditionalism. In rural areas, the more immediate everyday needs take precedence, and concepts of legal equality hold a lower priority than food, clean water, adequate housing, and sanitation. The lack of access to education due to distance or finances and its attendant illiteracy coupled with the home languages of the largely Amazigh population in the rural areas concentrated in the Rif and Atlas Mountains additionally prohibit awareness of laws written in formal Arabic.   

Current efforts to address the lack of awareness are occurring through “Imagine” women’s self-discovery and empowerment workshops led by the High Atlas Foundation, including through its implementation of a Legal Aid clinic in partnership with the Faculty of Social, Juridical, and Economic Legal Studies at University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah (FSJES-USMBA). The High Atlas Foundation is a Moroccan association and a U.S. 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2000 by former Peace Corps Volunteers committed to furthering sustainable development. HAF supports Moroccan communities in implementing human development initiatives by promoting organic agriculture, women’s empowerment, youth development, education, and health. The Legal Aid Clinic (CFJD)—funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI)—actively engages students in experiential and service learning for the benefit of marginalized communities in the Fes-Meknes region. Recently, for example, one such workshop was held in Sefrou; these four-day workshops include Moudawana rights-based education in the curriculum. Vulnerable populations such as women and migrants provided with legal assistance and information are more supported in knowing and exercising their rights.

To achieve greater gender parity and protection for women, they must first be informed of their rights under the Moudawana. Steady but slow increases in access to formal education must be supported and enhanced to bring the literacy levels of rural women into alignment with their more educated urban peers. Participatory community development that includes women’s empowerment and rights-based education must continue to spread across the nation to give women a voice and a vision and a say over the course of their lives. Training and recruitment and capacity-building must be a priority to increase women’s employment opportunities, and even more importantly for the good of Morocco, presence in economic and political leadership roles. As former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet once remarked, “When one woman is a leader, it changes her. When more women are leaders, it changes politics and policies.” An empowered woman is imbued with self-confidence that benefits her family, her village, and her society. It begins with the knowledge that allows her to imagine her future.

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Since its founding in 2000, the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) has committed itself to offer its beneficiaries, predominantly women, training related to self-knowledge. This empowerment programming is implemented across Morocco. In total, HAF has conducted 38 such Imagine Empowerment Workshops that have impacted 900 women so far since 2017.

To gain a better understanding of how these workshops have affected the lives of participants over the last several years, HAF, in cooperation with the USA-based Empowerment Institute, is embarking on a new journey to evaluate and monitor the impact of this program.

On June 2, HAF Farmer-To-Farmer Field Officer Zineb and HAF Program Manager, Empowerment Fatima Zahra attended a virtual meeting with Theresa and Millicent, representatives from the Empowerment Institute. The meeting emphasized the importance of ongoing support groups post-workshop as a beneficial method to track the impact and sustain the growth of the Imagine program.

The main objectives of these support groups are:

  1. To develop and sustain the groups through the transfer of the empowerment framework
  2. To develop the skills of both the group and the the trainer(s)
  3. To collect evaluative data on the Imagine Empowerment Workshop

I am greatly humbled by our partner, the Empowerment Institute, who remains supportive and even delighted to be part of the HAF journey, as they continue to engage with our team, providing the necessary support to successfully achieve our evaluation goals.

A second meeting took place on Monday, June 7 to review evaluation forms and adapt them to fit HAF's goals and vision. Now, HAF’s empowerment team is in the process of inviting former workshop participants to create a representative sample that we will then survey to explore the impact of the Imagine workshop on the personal or professional lives of these women. The representative sample is selected randomly, and women from each past group of participants will take part in this    process. By demonstrating the real impact of the Imagine program and its follow-up, the High Atlas Foundation aims to expand its partnerships with institutions seeking to support the continued self-empowerment of women, and others, throughout Morocco.

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High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
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Twitter: @AtlasHigh
Project Leader:
Fatima Zahra Laaribi
Marrakech, Morocco
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