Despite Continuing Challenges, Women Advancing in Morocco and the MENA

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This weekend in Barcelona, the Union for the Mediterranean is hosting a conference, “Women for the Mediterranean: Driving Force for development and stability.” The Union’s website notes that “First affected by economic crisis, climate change, as well as conflicts, violence and discriminations, women are also enablers and actors for positive changes. They foster sustainable development and inclusive economic growth, they nurture education and health and they promote mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence.” So what progress is being made?

The Arab Spring promised to be a watershed in women’s emancipation: they had visible leadership roles in Tunisia and Egypt and played a prominent role in Morocco. Moroccan women found a champion in King Mohammed, who had already promoted a very progressive family law reform.

So now Morocco has a constitution that promotes equal rights for women; yet the high hopes that reforms would consolidate steps toward greater empowerment are only slowly being realized. In this election, women lobbied to have the opportunity to run in parliamentary elections more than once on the quota-driven national list; they lost, depriving those with experience from continuing to serve.   The other option, to be listed on the upper tier of local party lists, has not been exercised by party chiefs on behalf of their female leadership.

In the social sector, a continuing challenge in many rural areas is that although the legal age for marriage is 18, judges routinely approve much younger unions. A positive development is in rural education for girls where upwards of 80% are enrolled in primary schools. However, the dropout rate after primary education in these rural areas is still above international standards. There are no silver bullets for remedying these challenges. The future for women and girls is still very much in transition.

Where Change is Happening

Looking at the annual list of the “world’s 100 most powerful Arab women,” it should come as no surprise that only 5% of those named work in government. Whether in business, civil society, or in academia, women are making their marks in the private sector despite still facing restrictions in terms of access to financing, legal services, and company licensing. Growing numbers of girls are matriculating into universities and colleges and are driving much of the entrepreneurial growth in Morocco.

In business, some women have utilized their family ties and business acumen, acquired largely abroad or with international companies, leveraging access to capital and corporate expertise to charge ahead in a range of sectors, most prominently consumer services, IT, banking, specialty retail sales, pharmaceuticals, educational and health services. For women who are part of the start-up revolution, they succeed by finding like-minded entrepreneurs and others who pull together via incubators, shared work spaces, and social media to develop business opportunities that were unavailable a decade ago.

Women entrepreneurs started out by building out the space of social entrepreneurship, largely by retooling local artisans and craftspeople for broader markets, including those accessible through social media. While the idea was to make profits to promote social good, the impact has been much broader, encouraging women of all ages to foray into edgy projects in media, organic and other agricultural sectors, baking and value-added food processing for niche markets, and creating artisanal items for consumption by conferences, advertisers, and similar clients.

In Morocco, Manal Elattir started out to train rural women to use the Internet to market their handicrafts. Within two years, she realized that her modest social entrepreneurship project had to evolve into a business based on a profit-sharing model if it was to be sustainable. Enlisting support from NGO design and production experts, she recently launched her high-end line of Moroccan handicrafts that combines high quality and fashion with traditional designs. Similar stories are found throughout the MENA region, with one thing in common: they are run by women who believe in shaping their own futures for themselves, their families and their communities.

Another global success story from Morocco is the processing and production of argan oil by women-run co-ops. These first small steps led to a series of downstream products, such as cosmetics, food supplements, ready to wear garments, and textile design that all emerged from goats in a tree-canopy feasting on argan nuts.

So women are excelling at the community level, and what has been equally valuable is growing international attention to and support for cementing advances that girls and women have been making to build stronger and more resilient achievements. In Tunisia, Wided Bouchamaoui, the head of the Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts, was one of a quartet receiving the Nobel Peace Prize this year [?]; in Morocco, the OPUS prize was awarded to Aicha Ech Chenna for her work with single mothers and girls’ education. These achievements are not lost on girls throughout the region.

Year after year, women in Morocco and throughout the MENA are recognized for their leadership, innovations, and commitment to advancing human rights, and economic empowerment, and for the intensity they bring to commercial, educational, media, and social and human rights campaigns. They are creating something unique – role models aligned with the knowledge, skills, and innovative thinking that girls and women want to demonstrate. In many communities that lack such role models — whether it be the local social entrepreneur creating a novel project to empower local craftspeople to increase their incomes and quality of life; the newly educated daughter who wins an international scholarship that enables her to acquire a career by which she is able to support her siblings and parents; or the rising sense of dignity when a girl is told by her parents to be all she can be — these changes are critical.

If girls and women are to build on these successes, international recognition and support acts as the leaven to empower them to set and achieve higher goals. In business and commerce, women are already reaching out and accelerating employment and leadership opportunities for other women. Counterparts in the west should emphasize their support for women-led initiatives to help break down barriers to increased success for women-owned businesses.

And the new Moroccan government, will be increasingly exposed to evaluations based on their gender-based performance. They will be challenged to demonstrate that incremental changes of the previous parliament must be accelerated, sustained, and broadened. Women in Morocco are truly agents of change, for the better, and are vital to the economic prosperity, political stability, and social integrity of their country.jean-abinader

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