Woman by woman: crossing borders to strengthen rights in North Africa
Sharing learning – and supportive international funding – has been the key to making a difference at the grass roots in Morocco and Tunisia.
This article is part of an editorial partnership with the Fund for Global Human Rights.
When Mariam Zemmouri was educating young rural women on their rights in Morocco, she did not realise the effect she was having until her trainees defended her in front of their local mayor.
“He tried to silence me. After I introduced myself, I was explaining what I taught as well as the purpose of our visit,” says Zemmouri, leader of Tawaza, a grassroots women’s association based in the northern coastal city of Martil. She had gone to the municipality of M’diq (a northern town close to Ceuta) with ten trainees to ask for street lighting to reduce the harassment young women endured on their way home after work. The mayor, however, kept asking Zemmouri to keep quite in the room.
“The girls surprised me when they spoke up in front of a dignitary they could never have imagined being in the same room with. They explained to him the significance of the training they had received with us because they were finally able to meet him and speak about their demands,” she adds.
Tawaza and other local organisations like it have their work cut out. Inequality between men and women is stark across North Africa: all countries in the region that were featured in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2018 rank below the global average.
The good news is that the solutions to gender equality are crossing borders too. Grassroots women’s groups in Morocco and Tunisia, with the help of international allies, are exchanging their experiences about how best to train and support women in their communities.
Law and culture
On paper, women in Tunisia have had a lot of legal support to be happy about since 1956, when the constitution banned polygamy. Abortion was legalised in 1973. Over the years more laws in their favour have been passed, most recently lifting a ban on marrying non-Muslims. However, human rights critics say there are problems with putting the theory into practice.
Moroccan women received legal support much later, in2004, when the kingdom adopted a family code in support of women’s rights. A decade later, constitutional reforms gave women certain rights such as to divorce by mutual consent and the right to child custody. The law also raised the minimum age of marriage for women from 15 to 18. Last year, the country’s parliament passed a law that combats violence against women.
Echoing the concerns from Tunisia, Asmaa Falhi, programme officer for North Africa at The Fund for Global Human Rights, says: “We still have problems in the application.” Furthermore, there are lots of gaps in the recent Moroccan laws: for example, they do not outlaw marital rape or violence.
Added to constitutional problems, cultural ideologies are taking toll on the behaviour of rural and conservative areas across the Maghreb region. “Wahhabism [the ultra-conservative form of Islam based in Saudi Arabia] is returning into people’s lives,” says Halima Oulami, leader of Al Amane, an organisation based in Marrakesh, Morocco, whose name means ‘safety’ in Arabic. “This is taking us backwards, especially that Morocco now is led by a conservative party.”
Patriarchy combines with poverty to create widespread problems for North African women. According to Zemmouri, women outnumber men in farm work but have limited access to markets and incomes. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that men are generally the decision-makers in Moroccan farming communities. In the absence of the husband, male children frequently make decisions rather than their mother.
Women also suffer harassment and violence, especially when hard labour is the only means to earn bread, as is the situation of ‘cargo women’. Thousands of them cross the Moroccan borders every day towards the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to transfer goods and face harassment, trafficking and similar problems.
Marriage at a very young age is common across the Maghreb: recent statistics indicate that more than 48,000 girls under the age of 18 in Morocco got married in 2014. This number represents a slight improvement (13% decrease) from 2004.
Different tools, one goal
These are the challenges that women’s organisations in Morocco and Tunisia face. One strength they have to deal with them is summed up in the meaning of the name Tawaza. This is a word in Tamazight – one of two official languages in Morocco – that means ‘cooperation to produce quality work within a short period of time’. Cooperation has allowed different grassroots organisations to share experiences and tactics with each other across North Africa and within their own countries, in order to reach their shared goals: to work with rural and marginalised women, and those who live in poor areas, to educate them on their legal rights, to help them become economically independent, and to train them to engage in their communities and to conduct their lives independently.
Some associations, like Al Amane, knocked on doors in impoverished neighbourhoods to invite people to workshops on civic engagement and legal rights. In one example, Al Amane offered families counselling and legal advice on child marriage, and argued that young girls should not be considered potential wives.
The association has also used theatrical performances to introduce rural communities to human rights principles. At its headquarters in one of the marginalised neighbourhoods of Marrakesh, it has also organised workshops to teach women new skills and help them find jobs.
Other associations have established listening centres to get closer to women’s problems. Tafoukt Souss – which means ‘the sun of the city of Souss’ in Tamazight – in mid-southern Morocco found that this method encouraged many women to come, unfold their problem and get psychological and legal advice. The idea was so successful that Moroccan women trained their Tunisian counterparts to repeat it in their own communities.
Borrowing the idea from their Moroccan counterparts, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) opened a listening centre in the city of Monastir to help women working in the textile industry there – who number more than 56,000 – combat violence.
Najoua Hadjamor, a former counsellor and listener at the centre, says: “Between 2014 and 2019 the Forum received 180 women who were victims of sexual, physical and economic violence. Benefitting from the Moroccan experience, we were able to offer women legal guidance on violence and inequality as well as psychological support for those abused and follow-up strategy.”
Another kind of knowledge-sharing worked in more direct way. The Fund for Global Human Rights supported Moroccan and Tunisian associations to form a ‘caravan’ – a group travelling together – across Tunisia. It transferred the Moroccan experience in empowering women to their Tunisian peers while also reaching rural communities in remote and marginalised areas and providing them legal and psychological support.
The caravan started on 2 May 2014 and visited the Tunisian cities of Monastir, Kairouan, Kasserine, Sidi Bou Zid, Sfax, Medenine and Al Rudayyif, ending its two-week journey on the eastern island of Djerba. Activists visited these communities to discuss and advocate for human and women’s rights in markets, schools, local associations and farms.
People from the communities participated actively in the workshops and engaged in conversations. The experience also made a difference to the associations themselves because they learned new tactics and strategies from each other as they travelled together from community to community.
The right sort of support
The grassroots women’s groups in Morocco and Tunisia would not have got where they are today without support from abroad. In Tunisia, particularly during the regime of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1989-2011), women's rights organisations could do little to work with individual communities to fight violence and gender discrimination. The few independent organisations based in the capital had to focus on challenging the dictatorship and fighting for their own survival. Since the 2011 revolution, however, they are able to focus on women’s empowerment and rights with a broader reach.
Following the revolution, international organisations such as The Fund for Global Human Rights – which had been working in the region since 2004 – responded to the need of several small Tunisian women's rights groups. This support helped the grassroots organisations build and strengthen their constituencies, work closely with people in the ground and respond to the problems and needs that these women themselves identified.
Of course there is still much to do, and the non-governmental leaders interviewed for this article all underline the need for more funding to reach more people in more places. Extra resources “can help build a strong regional women’s rights movements”, says Asmaa Falhi from the Fund.
The women’s groups don’t want a blank cheque, though. They need technical help, such as training methods and techniques for working with rural women, to support further exchange and collaboration, building on the experience in listening centres and the activists’ caravan. Because the cultures and economies of Morocco and Tunisia are so similar, it is fruitful for grassroots organisations in the countries to share their struggles as well as their strategies and approaches, and to learn from each other’s successes and failures.
Another request is for more cooperation with women’s organisations in the western world. “Technically, I feel we are quite behind in some areas: in training methods, technology and field work. We need to learn more to improve what we can do,” says Halima Oulami, leader of Al Amane.
Signs of success
“Progress is hard to measure because we work on changing mentality,” says Oulami. However, associations that have been active for longer than a decade have noticed changes. Oulami, for example, has been able to help establish eighteen women’s groups in regions of Morocco that had not witnessed such activism before.
Another sign is the gradual emergence of women in the job sector. In conservative neighbourhoods, where women were not allowed to work, they are now to be seen working in stores – thanks to the economic empowerment workshops offered by women activists.
For Zahira Bouchait of Tafoukt Souss,“working with women on a daily basis and driving them to think critically in conservative areas is in itself a type of success for us”.
Zemmouri’s Tazawa, which manages a listening centre, is now being approached by police stations and the municipality to look after certain cases of abused women.
Many conservative communities are becoming open to women activists working in their areas. “Communities that did not welcome us at the beginning have now honoured us for changing women’s lives and for helping them start their own small businesses, or get a job in the argan farms [argan trees are cultivated for their oil], and counsel their peers to be better,” says Bouchait.
It’s work that takes sensitivity as well as a deep understanding of local cultures – something that only grassroots organisations can do, with the help of foreign allies prepared to listen to their needs.
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