This post is by Christie Edwards is a part of the Feminism & Education series jointly hosted by Equality 101 and Gender Across Borders. Archives of the Feminism & Education series are here.
Thanks to the American Society of International Law Helton Fellowship Program, I spent several months in Morocco last year working with local NGOs and researching female literacy (among other women’s issues). Morocco is typically hailed as a beacon for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa after passing a new Family Code six years ago and announcing their intention to remove all reservations to CEDAW. Additionally, Morocco has set ambitious goals for increased access to education and economic participation for women and girls as key strategies for the country’s economic development. However, underneath all of the positive publicity lies a rather heartbreaking reality for many Moroccan women – recent surveys in Morocco estimated the country’s illiteracy rate to be approximately 55% of all women and 90% of rural women in Morocco are illiterate.
Millions of dollars have been spent to increase women’s literacy in Morocco. However, implementation has been sporadic and inconsistent due to the enormity of the problem and the complexity of the solutions proposed by the government, international aid donors, educators, civil society groups and Moroccan women.
Although women are increasingly joining the workforce, one of the biggest obstacles for women is their primary responsibility for caretaking in the home, which prevents them from going to school or fully participating in public life. A few of the young women I spoke to said that their parents placed little value on their education and did not allow them to attend school because they were “only destined for marriage and motherhood.” Morocco also has extremely high child labor rates, with tens of thousands of girls under fifteen working as child maids, working in the textile industry, or apprenticing in traditional arts and crafts. As a consequence, many girls do not enroll or drop out of school. The dramatic dropout rate of girls at the secondary school level at 50% in urban areas and 89% in rural areas is a direct contributing factor to adult female illiteracy. As girls enter adulthood, prevailing societal attitudes and logistical difficulties further prevent women from gaining access to schools or literacy programs.
The government has set lofty goals for literacy and vocational training but must coordinate these goals with international donors who have goals and strategies of their own. Teachers face numerous bureaucratic challenges, women recipients face practical and societal challenges accessing the education programs, and civil society groups attempt to work in the middle to accomplish what the government cannot, while addressing the myriad perspectives of all parties. The greatest lesson I learned in Morocco was that introducing programs in cultural terms that are acceptable to the local community is necessary for building credibility with somewhat skeptical communities, yet human rights advocates must also frame these programs within international human rights criteria in order to receive funds from international aid donors.
In order for Morocco to effectively achieve higher literacy rates for women, a holistic strategy must be used, taking all of the challenges and goals of each of the stakeholders into consideration. It is absolutely essential for women to be represented in the conversations between NGOs, the government, and aid donors in order to express their needs and concerns, so that effective strategies for social and economic reform can be enacted to promote education and economic empowerment for women in Morocco. International donors must also work together to create a countrywide strategy that incorporates the needs of local communities. They must talk to and work with local groups and organizations, which will encourage a local buy-in and an inclusive strategy to solve community problems. Similarly, civil society groups must communicate actual needs to aid donors in order to impact the direction of funding. I believe that Morocco is well on its way to achieving its goals for national literacy and a stronger economy, as long as it continues to make women a central focus and priority.
Christie Edwards has worked as a gender consultant on women’s international human rights for several DC organizations and has been with the Vital Voices Global Partnership Middle East and North Africa team since January 2010. She received her J.D. from Thomas Jefferson School of Law, specializing in international human rights law. In addition to her private practice of asylum representation for political refugees, she became an Adjunct Professor and Pro Bono Fellow at TJSL in 2007, teaching an international human rights course and coaching students to compete in an international moot court competition. Christie also completed her LL.M. degree at AU’s Washington College of Law, specializing in human rights and gender. In 2010, she received a Helton Fellowship from ASIL, which allowed her to work in Casablanca, Morocco with local NGOs working on an advocacy campaign for greater legal rights for single mothers. She has published law review articles on the cultural context of sex trafficking in China and the use of gender budget analysis to achieve educational parity for women and girls in Morocco. She is also a contributing editor for a forthcoming casebook on Women and International Human Rights Law.