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Thanks to the American Society of International Law Helton Fellowship Program, I spent several months in Morocco last year working with local nongovernmental organizations 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, having:

‰Š¼ Passed a new Moroccan Family Code six years ago; and
‰Š¼ Announced the intention to remove all reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

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. (credit for Global Fund for Women photo of young women studying in Morocco)

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. Fully 90% of rural women in Morocco are illiterate.

Due to the positive link between poverty and illiteracy, literacy programs are strategically linked to development programs in impoverished areas so that the beneficiaries, particularly women and girls, gain access to education. However, implementation of education and literacy programs has been sporadic and inconsistent due to the enormity of the problem of women’s illiteracy 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 informal and formal work force, one of the biggest obstacles to upward mobility for women is their primary responsibility for caretaking in the home, which prevents them from pursuing educational opportunities or fully participating in the public economic sphere.
Although Morocco has made great strides to make primary education for children universal, girls frequently feel that their parents diminish the value of their education and prevent them from attending school because they are “only destined for marriage and motherhood.”

As a consequence of Morocco’s high child labor rates, with tens of thousands of girls under fifteen working as child domestics, working in the textile industry, or apprenticing in traditional arts and crafts. Many girls do not enroll, or they 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.

As Morocco works to improve the low literacy rates among women and improve socioeconomic participation in the informal and formal economic sectors, it faces an enormously complex set of challenges. 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.

Bureaucratic challenges hamper educators’ abilities to provide their services. The women recipients face practical and societal challenges accessing the education programs. Civil society groups attempt to work in the middle to accomplish what the government cannot, while addressing the myriad perspectives of all parties.

In Morocco, introducing programs in cultural terms that are acceptable to the local community is necessary for building credibility with communities often wary of change. Yet human rights advocates must also contextualize 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 and promote women’s socioeconomic participation, a holistic strategy must be used, taking all of the challenges and goals of each of the stakeholders into consideration:

‰Š¼ It is absolutely essential for women to be represented in the dialogue 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.
‰Š¼ International donors must also work together to create a countrywide strategy that incorporates the needs of local communities. They must do adequate research by talking to and working with local groups and organizations, which will encourage a local buy-in and an encompassing strategy to solve community problems.
‰Š¼ Similarly, civil society groups must communicate actual needs to aid donors in order to impact the direction of funding. (map credit)
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.

Cross-posted with permission from IntLawGrrls