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It's a Game Changer

10/08/2016 10:41 | Updated 10 August 2016

"Now we are able to buy sheep, breed them and sell them," says Hanane Anassi who leads a women's cooperative in the harsh landscape of Morocco's Atlas mountains. What's changed in this ancient land where millions live in poverty, is that these sheep-raising women have become computer savvy.

"The women's engagement network has empowered us," Hanane says.

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They are using a web portal to organize themselves and develop the skills they badly need to compete in commercial markets. And, even more remarkable, they are running their business relying on each other, independent of their villages' menfolk.

"The online portal was instrumental in creating a basic accounting procedure," says Hanane who is now comfortable with high-tech lingo. "It also helped us develop a business plan and set up our organizational structure."

What started as an loosely grouped agricultural association has now become a legally registered cooperative that generates revenue for each of its members - all of whom are local women.

Their cooperative, one of more than 6,000 in Morocco, is part of a nationwide network of self-governing women's organizations, funding and training themselves as they break the mould that has held them back for centuries.

It's a game changer

These women are using the power of the worldwide web to leap over the intractable barriers of widespread illiteracy and the denial of women's rights. Their 21st-century approach is the brainchild of a little-known center started by a woman who has just broken through one of the highest glass ceilings in the world - Hillary Clinton.

Launched in 1999, when she was the First Lady of the United States, the Hillary Rodham Clinton Center for Women's Empowerment was set up to conduct interdisciplinary research into gender issues in North Africa and do grassroots work to empower women in local communities.

Based in Morocco's leading institution of higher learning, Al Akhawayn University, the center faced an immediate challenge. How could it work effectively with socially disenfranchised people, blighted by rural poverty, and prevented from changing their circumstances by illiteracy - one of the greatest and most persistent obstacles to social transformation?

It was a formidable prospect. Illiteracy remains one of the country's greatest roadblocks to social and economic development. Of the 149 countries listed in UNESCO's 2015 world literacy report, Morocco ranks 117th. Four out of ten women are illiterate. In many of the rural areas it is as as many as eight out of ten.

"We faced a choice," says the center's director, Dr Doris Gray. "We could campaign for greater literacy. This had been tried without much success. Or we could try another approach. Find a way to get around the literacy barrier. We decided we would try to empower women with tools and skills they could use without being fully literate."

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"Almost everyone in the rural areas is computer literate. They use the technology to keep in touch with their relatives. The great thing is that on a smart phone you can swipe. You don't have to type."

Dr Gray and her team decided to develop an app that would enable the whole network of women's leaders to get skills even if they had only minimal reading or writing abilities. "That would give them the tools they said they needed to make their cooperatives successful," she recalls.

Now anyone on the network can visit the website of the Clinton center's Women's Engagement Network and find literally dozens of short films and interviews covering everything from setting up accounts, to marketing, to organizational management. "No video is longer than three minutes," says Dr Gray. "They are deliberately designed to overcome another problem caused by illiteracy. The users cannot make written notes. So we have used the methods of oral, repetitive pedagogy. The short films are scripted and edited to be easily remembered. And they are all in local dialects."

This painstaking work, all done collaboratively with the women in the cooperatives, can throw up unexpected realities. The Clinton Center team discovered that virtually all the products - ranging from herbal medicines and cosmetics through to woven rugs and scarves, as well as a wide variety of traditional handicrafts - were being significantly underpriced.

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"They were not factoring in their own time," says Dr Gray. "They didn't think their time had any value. They were only putting in the price of the materials. It never occurred to them that their time was worth something."

The women have now come to see the value of their time and include it the pricing of their products. To those outside the world of these rural women, this pricing shift may seem like a small, even absurd, advance. But within a culture where, for centuries, women have had limited property rights, little or no formal education, and almost no economic independence, to now have them valuing and pricing their time at the loom or beehive is a game changer.

Investing in girls and women

Hanane Anassi who has benefited both from the online access of the Women's Engagement Network as well as the Clinton Center's on-site training workshops, says it is not only the goal of financial independence that has motivated local women like her.

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"The workshops and the online portal removed our sense of isolation and made Berber women like us, living in the countryside, feel part of a Morocco-wide network of women's associations and co-operatives with similar goals and challenges."

The Center has also established the largest community outreach program in the region: the Azrou Center for Community Development. Its activities include vocational training and literacy programs for girls and women, continuing education for young people not in the formal school system, computer and IT courses for men and women, French and English language classes, a health center and satellite programs in villages throughout the region.

This is not conventional charity work. It is not "throwing money" at a problem. It is about deep social reform. When the Center opened in April 2000, a year after Hillary Clinton announced its creation, she said: "Women around the world have joined together to express their belief that economic progress depends on women's progress; democratic progress depends on women's progress; human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights."

"The benefits of educating women go far beyond the classroom and the schoolhouse," she said. "They go to stronger families, better health, nutrition, wages and levels of political participation. As I have traveled around the world and during my visits to Morocco, I have seen first-hand that investing in girls and women helps to transform communities which in turn can transform societies."

It is a view, once subject to all manner of scepticism and hostility, that has now become more and more mainstream.

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As if to signify increasing endorsement of this approach, the US government dispatched its ambassador in Morocco, Dwight L. Bush, to Al Akhawayn University to visit the Clinton Center this year. Not only did ambassador Bush meet with the center's director, Dr Doris Gray (above, right), but also three representatives of local cooperatives who have become change agents in their communities.

The end of poverty

At the outset of this century the United Nations declared eight Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by the year 2015. These included cutting by half the millions of people around the world living in absolute poverty - as a step towards the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger altogether.

By 2015, far more had been achieved than critics feared, although many aspects of the goals still remained to be accomplished. Based on that unprecendented global effort, the targets were expanded to 17 Sustainable Development Goals, known collectively as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Significantly, women's empowerment is explicity included in the strategy for achieving all of these goals, whether they be ending poverty, making the world's cities safer or protecting the oceans. The language is strong and upfront. Take the first goal, "End poverty in all its forms everywhere". The UN states:

"The end of poverty can only be achieved with the end of gender-based discrimination. All over the world, gender inequality makes and keeps women poor, depriving them of basic rights and opportunities for well-being. Women have a right to equal access to all avenues to end poverty, from social protection safety nets to use of the latest technology. Fully realizing that right will be key to achieving the first Sustainable Development Goal."

It is not just the eradication of poverty where this matters. The UN states:

"The sustainable development goals seek to change the course of the 21st century, addressing key challenges such as poverty, inequality, and violence against women. Women's empowerment is a pre-condition for this."

One of the global goals is specifically dedicated to women's rights. It proclaims: "Since all areas of life relate to gender equality, efforts must be made to cut the roots of gender discrimination wherever they appear."

The greatest obstacle

Morocco was rocked by massive demonstrations in the 1990s and early 2000s calling for reform of the country's traditional model of family law. The process of change started in 1999, and by 2003 both international and national pressure led to a new law that was the most radical reform of family law in the contemporary Arab and Muslim world. It raised the marriage age. It curtailed polygamy, ended a husband's unilateral right to divorce, and removed the traditional clause requiring a wife to be obedient to her husband.

"The change turned the family from a vertical institution where the man presided over everything into a horizontal institution. It made husband and wife equal in terms of managing the family's affairs," says Dr Gray.

But even though the law has changed, cultural perceptions have not. In the rural areas, many people are still following the previous family code. "Women feel they cannot open a bank account if they want to establish a cooperative - even though they are completely entitled to," says Dr Gray. "The men tell their wives, 'You need my signature,' and they won't give it unless they are added to the cooperative."

"Even where people know the law has changed, they don't apply it," she says. "For example, the police prevent women from planting herbs or having a bee-hive on public land, even though this is legal. But being semi-literate the women do not know their rights or where to go to enforce those rights. To make matters worse, the police and courts often side with the husbands against the women. So when I ask the women what is the greatest obstacle they face, they say it is their husbands."

"What's happening here, not in Europe, gets completely ignored. "

I asked Dr Gray about the other, inevitable, challenge that a center like this must face: funding. "We feel we need to reflect Hillary's vision in a much more substantive way," she told me. "We need to get an endowment for our 'scholar in residence' program and expand our workshops and conferences. These are key parts of our interdisciplinary research role in North Africa. Being in an academic institution we are trying to be a bridge between the ivory tower of the university and the real life situation all around us."

"We also need to develop our focus on refugees and migrants," she said. "This is a burning issue. There are no official numbers. The UN estimates there are some 10,000 who have crossed into Morocco. But that is a minimal number. It does not include all those who are undocumented. We need to do the research and document, from our perpective, what is happening to the thousands of women and children. There are no health services for them. What's happening here in the south, not in Europe, gets competely ignored."

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