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

After nearly a year of working with the High Atlas Foundation on the development of a business plan for value added-walnut processing as volunteer consultants from the University of Pennsylvania, our team had the opportunity to visit several of HAF’s agricultural cooperatives and walnut tree nurseries in the Al Haouz province of Morocco. While visiting these sites, we spoke to local growers and processors in order to understand the progress of existing projects, goals for future development, and barriers that remain to maximizing economic and social returns for rural communities.

We began our trip with a visit to the House of Life Fruit Tree Nursery in Akrich. We were amazed by the innovative agricultural techniques that have allowed this nursery to sustainably grow and thrive. After a tour of the nursery and burial ground of a Jewish-Moroccan saint, we enjoyed a traditional Moroccan breakfast with the caretaker and another volunteer from Slovenia who has been in Akrich since January conducting anthropological research. In addition to issues related to sustainable agriculture, we discussed structural barriers to girls’ education in the region. 

From Akrich, we continued our journey and made our next stop at HAF’s walnut processing facility in Al Haouz. This visit was particularly meaningful as it imbued our work from the past several months with a concrete, perceptible dimension. Seated at the front steps of the facility, in a small courtyard with a breathtaking view of the High Atlas Mountains, we received a highly detailed account of the various steps involved in walnut-processing operations, from the initial purchase of raw walnuts from local growers to the packaging, labeling and certification of finished products. This conversation was invaluable to our finalization of the business plan, helping us to verify and adjust our assumptions to fit the specific social, economic, and environmental context of the local community.

Our final visit of the afternoon was to the Takhrkhourt Women’s Cooperative. After sharing some laughs over stories of their time attending primary school together, the young women emphasized to us the sense of inner peace and happiness that they had found in their work at the cooperative. They disclosed that after years of staying at home, the opportunity to go to work each day and to witness and enjoy the fruits of their labor has been enormously fulfilling.

The following day, we visited the Aboghlo Cooperative in Asni. The women here shared with us their experiences in HAF’s Imagine Workshop, an empowerment program that provides training in communication, coalition-building, and conflict mediation. We were struck by the strong sense of camaraderie among these women, and the candor and conviction with which they articulated their needs for improving working conditions.

At another cooperative higher up in the mountains, our conversations centered around the continued challenge of securing funding for solar panels and sustainable water systems to support the continued growth of tree planting initiatives in the region. We learned about HAF’s youth environmental training and educational programs which focus on the importance of planting trees for sustainable carbon reduction, food security, and stable income for village communities. Additionally, we spoke to a women’s cooperative about their personal goals and aspirations, from finishing their studies to pursuing careers in programming and fashion design.

Our final visit was to one of HAF’s largest nurseries, which has been operational for 13 years and is tucked away in a shaded terrace of incredibly beautiful and verdant land. We were shown the advanced irrigation system that waters the trees and learned about HAF’s ongoing effort to transition away from a gas-powered water source to solar-powered irrigation.

Our visits to HAF’s sites these past two days have been incredibly informative and serve as a powerful reminder of the reasons we remain committed to this work and the lives and livelihoods that are at stake.

Caroline, Rohan, Anjali and Elisa are undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania and team members in Penn International Impact Consulting, a student-run organization at UPenn that partners with NGOs from developing regions and seeks to empower them in achieving their social missions.

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Generally, self-empowerment is referred to as the process which leads people to exert greater control over their lives. It is about believing in oneself, setting goals, and making positive choices. That is to say, having to understand our strengths and weaknesses and having belief in ourselves.

This view of self-empowerment was at the core of Imagine workshop‘s goals and objectives. The purpose of the workshop, which was held from May 4 to May 7, 2021, and dedicated to student beneficiaries from Cadi Ayyad University, was to enable young women to take initiative in changing the way they see themselves and the world around them. It was also highlighted throughout the workshop that the first and foremost key element of self-empowerment is to have a vision and to work towards achieving it.

The four-day training focused on seven key areas (emotions, relationships, sexuality, body, money, work, and religion). Each of these areas was discussed at a round table, allowing the participants to share their ideas, thoughts, and experiences. Given the different perspectives everyone has about self-empowerment, its meaning remains common. Among the pillars that make self-empowerment what it is, the participants mentioned:

- self-reliance;

- decision-making;

- the ability to identify one’s strengths and weaknesses;

- self- actualization;

- self-awareness;

- self-esteem;

- trusting the process of development; and

- overcoming fears.

The workshop included both theoretical knowledge and practical exercises to concretize and put into practice each and every aspect learned about self-empowerment. Practices were in the form of self-introspection sessions which allowed the participants to observe and examine their own conscious thoughts and feelings.

Participants were asked four main questions in order for them to locate themselves in relation to their visions. These questions were: Where am I now in relation to my vision? Where do I want to get? What is my limiting belief? Am I convinced?

The training offered an opportunity to open up and talk with ease about the things that weigh us down and hinder our personal and professional growth. The participants together identified their different limiting beliefs and how to overcome them.

Generally, the blocking beliefs are either intrinsic or extrinsic. On the one hand, intrinsic beliefs usually come from within. That is, thoughts we build and believe about ourselves which happen to be wrong most of the time. On the other hand, extrinsic ones are social constructs and stereotypes we get from outside of ourselves (i.e., from society, friends, family, and relatives) and which set a social model by which people socially behave.  

The four-day journey definitely left a positive impact on the young women and how they see themselves. What attests to this are the testimonials they provided and how they came to talk about their future projects by the end of the workshop. The confidence and the sense of initiative they manifested proves a reassuring present and a promising future of self-actualization and self-determination.

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Climate change is likely the most urgent crisis facing us in the 21st century. Rising temperatures are causing increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters, more droughts and heat waves, precipitation changes, and sea level rise. Consequently, this is leading to high levels of food insecurity, mass displacements, the spread of disease, and many other social, economic, and political challenges worldwide.  

Morocco is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Since the 1960s, Morocco’s climate has increased by 1°C, and projections indicate an increase of 1-1.5° until 2050. This temperature increase is associated with reductions in mountain snow cover and in rainfall; projections indicate a decline of 10 to 20 percent in average precipitation across the country by 2100. Consequently, droughts are becoming more frequent. Sea level is projected to rise between 18-59 centimeters by 2100, threatening 60 percent of Morocco’s population which inhabits coastal cities. Some areas of the northern coast are already eroding by 1 meter each year. Lastly, water resources are also under increasing pressure, with water shortages now expected by 2020 and 2050 in many southern regions.

Climate change will have devastating consequences on all sectors of the population, but women will bear the brunt. Women across the globe are highly dependent on natural resources, as they are typically tasked with collecting water, food, and fuel for cooking. As droughts and water scarcity increase, women and girls spend more time and energy collecting water instead of earning money or attending school. Furthermore, women often face unequal access to resources and limited mobility in rural areas, restricting their ability to provide for themselves and their families. Moreover, a World Bank survey in 141 countries in 2012 reported that 103 nations impose legal differences on the basis of gender that hinder women’s economic opportunities. With fewer rights and economic capacities, women are often at greatest risk when natural disasters strike. Disasters such as extreme droughts or floods can lead to women’s displacement from their homes, as well as early marriage or prostitution to alleviate financial pressures caused by the loss of livelihoods.

Women are one of the most vulnerable demographics to the climate change crisis, but their involvement and empowerment is also crucial to its solution. 51 percent of the world’s population is women and girls, and their needs, perspectives, and ideas must be considered in effective, equitable, and sustainable planning to curb global warming.

For one, the climate crisis threatens the world’s food systems, and the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we must raise food production by 70 percent by 2050 to feed the growing population. Women comprise 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing nations, yet they are often denied loans, land ownership rights, and other resources, which hinders their ability to produce maximum yields. Meanwhile, many forests are cleared each year to grow more crops, contributing significantly to climate warming. If provided with the same access to resources as men, women could increase their agricultural yields by 20 to 30 percent, reducing world hunger by 12 to17 percent. If women’s farms yielded as much as men’s, about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide would be prevented from entering the atmosphere between now and 2050.

Moreover, a report by the climate research organization Project Drawdown estimates that increasing girls’ education and women’s access to family planning would reduce the amount of carbon that enters the atmosphere by 85 gigatons by 2050. Giving women access to high-quality reproductive healthcare allows women to choose how many children they have, curbing population growth and reducing global emissions. Additionally, the more education a woman has, the fewer children she has. Granting women and girls the right to education also increases their economic opportunities, decreasing their vulnerability to climate change, and may also increase their influence in the political sphere. Countries with high representation of women in politics are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties and undertake stronger efforts to combat climate change, yet a 2015 study reviewing 881 environmental sector ministries from 193 countries found that only 12 percent of environmental ministers were women.

The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) is doing important work to empower women in the agricultural sector, including through the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program which it implements, to tackle climate change in Morocco. HAF engages women in rural communities to plant organic fruit trees that build food security and reduce carbon emissions. Through a participatory development approach, HAF also works to improve women’s project management, decision-making, and leadership capacities, empowering them to initiate changes in their communities that promote the well-being of both people and the planet. Ultimately, empowering women empowers societies to tackle climate change, and we must engage women if we want to protect the planet and humanity.

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The terms ‘development’ and ‘human rights’ have become of frequent use in our current society, and one might even regard them as ‘buzzwords.’ While the vast attention given to each of these terms has been a fairly recent phenomenon, the use of them in communion is an even newer occurrence. Given the freshness of this association, there remains a lot to think about when talking about the nexus of these two ideas. This paper will seek to explore the intersection of development and human rights, specifically focusing on: what each idea entails, why bringing them together is beneficial, and what remains to be asked. It will first begin with a discussion about the contemporary ideas of development and human rights.  

According to the High Atlas Foundation’s Community Development Practice in Morocco handbook, development is defined as “a process that considers in its planning, economic, social, political, cultural, institutional, environmental, and technological factors to achieve its goal of generating benefits in these areas directed at all or the majority of people, especially the poor”. While there remains debate on what the exact definition of development is as well as what its goals should be, it is generally agreed that this is a multidimensional process, greatly affecting various aspects of human life through the processes of modernization. There has been a recent synthesis of development and human rights discourse at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, which has legitimized development as a right rather than just an instrument of solidarity2. Before diving further into this intersection, however, a groundwork for what the basis of human rights is must be laid out. 

While the idea of human rights came to the forefront of discussions in society in the years following World War II, the thoughts behind these ideas are rooted in the European natural rights philosophy and the beliefs of the age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries2. These natural rights philosophies emphasize the ideas of perfect equality and freedom, as well as the right to preserve life and property3. Perhaps the biggest milestone in regards to human rights, however, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, published by the UN in 1948. The aim of this declaration is to recognize the inherent dignity and inalienable rights possessed by all human beings. In addition to this, it claims that these rights are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in our world4. While it is true that the ideas at the core of human rights have been around for centuries, there are many other aspects of it that have continued to evolve over time, specifically the conversation surrounding the nexus of human rights and development.  

Now that the necessary discussion of what each of these terms entails has taken place, this paper will turn to focus on why bringing these two ideas together is so beneficial in our current society. For decades the development enterprise lived in isolation, and perhaps ignorance of the human rights system and what its implications for development were5. Social aspects were secondary to the goal of economic growth and transformation. This was counterproductive because development and human rights operate increasingly within the same subject areas, sharing a basic notion of justice and dignity, as well as a common interest in regulating power and participation2. A rights-based approach to development means empowering marginalized groups, challenging oppression and exclusion, and changing power relations. Thus, the intersection of these two ideas ensures that the process by which development aims are pursued respect and fulfill fundamental aspects of human rights5.Furthermore, by adopting this rights-based approach to development those engaging in development projects, such as non-profits and NGOs, are held accountable to the standards of a broader community of states and agencies that advocate for these rights6.

In the context of Morocco, human rights and development have frequently come together in the form of women’s empowerment. In this country, specifically in rural areas, women are often forced to leave school at a premature age due to both physical and financial difficulties. In addition to this, women in general are given less rights than men, which violates their justice and dignity, two concepts that are central to the notion of human rights. In recent years, however, women empowerment initiatives in this country have aimed to change this by giving women a voice in this battle against traditional cultural and gender norms. The Moudawana, or Moroccan family code, has taken on new developments to greater emphasize the importance of women’s rights and gender equality. While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, there still remains great improvements to be made through the context of development and human rights.

Development projects in Morocco must continue to emphasize gender equality in order for the inherent dignity of all humans to be honored. While there are undoubtedly benefits to be had from bringing these two ideas together, this simple convergence is not the complete answer to the problems of the third world. For starters, one must wonder how exactly NGOs and non-profits are to be held accountable in their pursuit of a rights-based approach? A case by case analysis seems too time consuming, yet surely there is no one size fits all rubric for development. Another potential problem that arises is whether this integration must be a complete or simply a partial merge of ideas. Would too much be lost by trying to integrate fully two traditions of thought and work that have each had their own distinct course of evolution? This paper has explored the history of each of these ideas, as well as the potential benefits of their union; however, it has also aimed to emphasize that problems, as well as gray areas, still arise in the discussion of these two ideas, and much work remains to be done in order to increase the potential benefit of their intersection.

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Agonss, a life between meadows and snow 1
Agonss, a life between meadows and snow 1

Despite weakening bodies, with grey hair and clenched faces, these people are still closely committed to their work with all dedication and sincerity. Time has not weakened their spirits. Heaven did not bury them but rather made them warriors in the field. They love nature, and it loves them back. They focus on one goal, remaining in one place without straying and because of their patience, time has come to pass. 

February 4, 2021 was a cloudy day, with a dry wind whose voice transports you to the lives of the region’s residents. It is the farthest and highest residential community within the Okaimden Mountains. It is difficult to navigate the majestic rocky terrain of the High Atlas Mountains even for the most experienced motorists, but Mr. Hassan, assistant at the High Atlas Foundation, knows by heart the best route among the twists and turns. 

Under the guidance of Larbi, a Local Volunteer for the Farmer-to-Farmer program, we made our way towards our destination. Due to the increasing difficulty of the crossing, we continued our trek with members of the Akuns Association who we met in the City Fazme area. But all of these difficulties pale in comparison to the importance of today’s task: the development of an action plan for an agricultural project for the inhabitants of the Akonis region. It took more than two hours to arrive. We passed through many empty agricultural terraces but also observed the beauty of the place – mountains wearing snowy coats, a unique silence prevailing over a charming and picturesque scene, sometimes broken by the sound of water, a call among the inhabitants, or an innocent, spontaneous smile of a young child who do not hesitate to greet passers-by. It is a scene that embodies the simplicity and spontaneity of the countryside and its love for others, far from any pretense or fabrication. 

Upon arrival, the team moved on foot to the meeting place, accompanied by Mr. Hassan, President of the Akuns Association, and his cousin Omar, also a member of the Association, who took the opportunity to show us the region. The farmers of Douar Akonis then received us. 

30 farmers came to share with us the story of their struggle inside Douar Akonis, and we struggled to find words to convey their sentiments. We can only summarize what they said in a poet’s verses: 

“I am the son of the earth, hugging me and hugging it 

How can I leave it in the hands of the usurper, the jailer. ” 

We were pleased with our conversation. Then, Mr. Rashid began introducing the High Atlas Foundation’s Farmer-to-Farmer project to the Association. It is a global program funded by the United States Agency for International Development, where volunteer experts from the US provide technical assistance to farmers, cooperatives, agricultural groups, and other agricultural sector institutions in developing countries, as well as countries in transition. The objective of the program is to promote sustainable development in food security, agricultural production and marketing, to build local capacity and combat climate change, and to preserve environmental and natural resources. In this way, Mr. Rachid briefed the Association on the main goal of the program, which is to achieve sustainable and large-scale economic growth in the country. 

The conversation with the attendees revealed their main priorities, which were all directed towards developing the region agriculturally. As Mr. Mohamed Bilal told us, “Our region was a source of production in terms of agriculture, but climate change is negatively affecting the yield in addition to the poor management of water, despite the presence of 9 springs, some of which are transitory while others are permanent.” He added that they are particularly interested in growing apples, as among all those present there was only one farmer who owned some trees. They also said they would like to plant more cherry trees. We also talked with Mr. Ibrahim, who expressed his dissatisfaction with the decline of the agricultural sector in the region, prompting him to look for alternatives in other areas. 

After that, Mr. Arab led an activity as part of the participatory approach to confirm their priorities: preparations to plant cherry trees on an area equivalent to 30 hectares and training in agricultural techniques. It was a fruitful interaction between the members of Douar Akunis and members of the association. After Mr. Al-Arabi collected the necessary information to start developing the work plan, they praised the efforts of the Farmer-to-Farmer project team, expressing their hope to alleviate their challenges, restore the glory of agricultural production, and combat their isolation, which prevents them from benefiting from the income of their labor. 

Meanwhile, we talked to the women of the region, welcoming them to share with us a glimpse into their world. We asked Mrs. Khadija how she spends her day and she answered in a quivering voice, “I spend it between these barns and with this child who never tires of being carried on my back.” We asked her afterwards if she had a handicraft, and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Zulekha, answered with sorrow, “It is enough that her husband hardly finds a temporary income and he does not know a way to settle, so how can we women go through challenges that overcome men.” After that, we explained to them that all the manual work they do is worthy of merit and appreciation, and that this would benefit them and their families, especially if this work is framed within a women’s cooperative system. 

Before we left this beautiful area, several other women stopped us in the high mountains. Two women who were herding sheep seemed as though they had been doing that their whole lives. We went to them and found Mrs. Fatima watching the sheep, but her mind was astray and seemed in pain. She introduced us to herself and her friend and expressed her joy with innocence and utter spontaneity, saying, “We are really suffering from severe exclusion in this region, and the challenges are increasing day by day as long as we are in this situation. For example, I cannot find anything to do except help my friend Fatima graze her sheep.” She cast a fleeting glance at her, saying in a faint voice, “She doesn’t say much because the hard work alone has exhausted her, and she looks forward every day until the situation improves, since she is the only provider for her family.” We asked her again, “Do you have a profession?” She answered this time. Mrs. Fatima about this question with confidence and courage: “Our daily activities include all crafts, starting with the traditional foods that we prepare and the skills they require, as well as our beds and technical methods that we use in our agricultural seasons and that we inherited from our ancestors. In addition to preserving products, there are many things that only a master of these daily crafts can do, but the rugged road that leads us refuses to end, so we continue to endure difficulties. ” 

In fact, the words of these women and those farmers convey a deep cry from the heart of this population that wants to change, save their agricultural sector, improve their livelihood, and support their future and the region’s future. We then left at the end of the day, ready to share their stories with others.

HAF Team Agonss, a life between meadows and snow
HAF Team Agonss, a life between meadows and snow
Agonss, a life between meadows and snow 3
Agonss, a life between meadows and snow 3
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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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