NGOs Build a Strong Future for Women in Morocco and Tunisia

March 10, 2017
Protest hat for sale in Morocco

Protest Hat for Sale

In January, as the United States was preparing to inaugurate its 45th president and thousands of women were making last minute plans for the Women’s March on Washington, I was preparing to head to Morocco and Tunisia for a cross-cultural exchange through the Professional Fellows Program implemented by Hands Along the Nile Development Services and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The Professional Fellows Program according to the U.S. Department of State, “brings emerging leaders in the fields of legislative process and governance, civic engagement, [nongovernmental organization] (NGO)management, economic empowerment and entrepreneurship, and journalism from around the world to the United States for intensive fellowships designed to broaden their professional expertise.” Fellows examine the relationship between civil society and government in the United States through the lens of an agency or organization. The program also encourages participants from across the globe “to develop enduring professional ties and lasting partnerships.”

The program began in Morocco, where I visited many organizations working to improve the economic, political, and educational status of women and girls. One such organization, Reseau Femmes Artisanes, is a handicraft cooperative offering items designed and produced by Moroccan women in collaboration with teachers and students of the Royal Design School of Copenhagen. We had a lively discussion with the artisans — these are women excited about achieving economic support and improving the conditions of their families. The cooperative takes into account such specific needs of women as childcare, leadership training, and cultural expectations. Mme. Saida, the president, spoke proudly of the cooperative, which has boosted skills training and increased self-confidence and economic security for many rural women. We also spent time at Association Tanmia.ma and Association Ennakhil, two women’s NGOs working on networking and advocacy, respectively.

Madame Said of Reseau Femmes Artisanes

Another highlight of the Morocco trip was the chance to visit Dar Si Hmad (DSH) whose vision is to “enable sustainable livelihoods and create opportunities for low-resource communities to learn and prosper.” DSH empowers women and girls in rural areas through an award-winning fogwater harvesting project, capacity-building trainings, and a Water School. It is also the organization of Souad Kadi, who spent time at AAUW during her professional fellowship in 2016 to learn about nonprofit management and women’s and girls’ advocacy.

Group photo at CAWTAR

Group photo at CAWTAR

The Tunisia portion was a journey I’d made in 2015, when I participated in this same program. The in-country program was arranged by the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR), which is well-respected in the region. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with past contacts and engage new ones. I was particularly interested in meeting with the League of Tunisian Women Voters (LET), which works diligently to ensure equity in voting and participation in Tunisia’s elections. LET staff have trained more than 300 women, engaged in voter recruitment, and served as election observers. As one staffer noted, “We need still need to change the mentality of people and public opinion about women’s rights.” Despite having equality enshrined in the country’s 2014 constitution, equality exists in principle — but not in practice.

League of Tunisian Women Voters

League of Tunisian Women Voters

To increase representation in parliament, which stands at 35 percent, a new law was passed in 2016 mandating that parties or blocks put forward an equal number of men and women list leaders. Regional and local elections taking place this month will be another step forward in increasing representation of women in elected positions, especially those from interior and rural areas.On a visit outside the capital to the rural area of Zaghouan, seeing the smiling face of Mme. Fatma at Groupement Féminin de Développement Agricole d’Oued Sbayhia again was inspiring.

Madame Fatma of Groupement Féminin de Développement Agricole d’Oued Sbayhia

The small village continues a cooperative project begun in 2011 that seeks to provide sustainable economic solutions to empower women. Through training in the extraction of essential oils, small farming, and animal husbandry, the women have engaged in a capacity-building process that has created economic rewards and increased leadership skills and self-esteem. Mme. Fatma was proud to announce that thanks to the success of the cooperative, she will send her daughter to school this year — a dream that was previously thought impossible. She also noted that her spouse still didn’t approve of her involvement in the cooperative, but she was going to continue the progress that has helped so many in her community. There were several other visits to Tunisian NGOs, including ENDA tamweel, which focuses on microcredit and entrepreneurship, and the Tunisian Association for Management and Social Stability (TAMSS), a community development organization that strengthens self-reliance for women and youth in poverty.

As I head to the United Nations next week for the 61st UN Commission on the Status of Women, it is sobering that so many women in the U.S. feel that our rights are under attack and that we must raise our voices in protest. In Tunisia and Morocco it is apparent that competent, innovative, determined women are shifting the paradigm to increase women’s participation and representation in all facets of society, politics, and the economy. They are raising their voices with us to demand women’s human and civil rights. They are working together to ensure that equality becomes a reality — not just an unfulfilled dream.


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