Morocco’s caravan of hope and the struggle to end child marriage

Girls in Morocco

Girls in Morocco © Girls Not Brides

This month the UK government will be hosting its first ever Girl Summit in a bid to mobilize domestic and global efforts to end – within a generation – female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM). This isn’t going to be easy, given the wide-spread occurrence of these practices, and the economic and societal pressures that continue to undermine gender equality in many countries. Globally, nearly three million girls and women a year are at risk of FGM.

Despite these challenges, there hasn’t been a better time to host a Girl Summit. More than ever before, people are aware of what’s happening to young girls and want to see action on issues that are rightfully viewed as a global problem.

Initiatives are already taking place. The impact of FGM has been well documented by human rights groups and, after a recent report claimed that as many as 170,000 girls were forced to have the procedure in Britain, the issue is now being hotly debated in the UK parliament. The arrest and prosecution of a National Health Service doctor for the crime has added further weight to the debate.

Early-age marriage is affecting an even larger population of girls. According to the United Nations, about 14 million girls under the age of 18 get married every year. If nothing changes, that number is expected to increase to 15 million a year by 2030. And, like FGM, this isn’t only happening in far-away villages in remote parts of the world. It’s happening to children in affluent, Western countries, including Britain.

So what can be done to end this practice?  How can a British-backed summit influence change not only at home, but also in remote areas? Setting a global agenda is vital but change must also happen at a grassroots level. And it already is, with some success, in some places. A good example is the Caravan Project in Morocco, founded in 2008 by Najat Ikhich, a prominent women’s activist who also set up YTTO, a charity to support victims of gender-based violence.

The caravan initiative is the first of its kind. It brings together a team of doctors, lawyers, social workers and child carers and takes them to rural areas across Morocco in a caravan. The villages visited by the caravan are so remote that Najat and her team must park their vehicles and walk several kilometres to complete their journey – the villages are beyond the reach of roads or infrastructure.

The real work begins once the team reaches the village. Najat has to win the trust of the local community and get them to accept the services brought to them – including medical check-ups and advice on health, as well as legal awareness among community members, particularly women.

In respect to gender rights, Morocco fares better than many of its neighbouring countries, thanks in large part to a strong women’s movement that dates back to Morocco’s independence from France. Reforms have taken place, including amendments to the country’s Moudawana – the official family code that decrees the roles and relationships between men and women within the family.

The reformed Moudawana grants men and women equal rights within the family. Husbands and wives also have equal rights in house management, family planning, bringing up children and legal cohabitation. Furthermore, the legal minimum age for marriage for both men and women is now 18 instead of 15.  

Enforcing these reforms is difficult, especially in poor communities, however. ‘Men don’t want change because they are scared of losing power,’ explains Najat. ‘I change their views by pointing out how much power a community will have if women can contribute to the economics of the village.’

Getting women and girls on board is also vital to the success of the project. When they reach the villages, Najat and her social workers set up consultation rooms in tents so that they can talk confidentially with women seeking advice and support. Community debates around issues linked to women’s empowerment and child marriage are also encouraged.

The project is working. Child marriage has dropped significantly in many of the target villages. One village saw a reduction from 450 underage marriages in 2010 to just 50 in two years later. Local contacts in other villages report that fewer families are accepting early marriage as an option for their daughters and many more girls are learning to read and write.

The success of the project has reinforced Najat’s belief that change is always possible. ‘I choose to fight for my rights and the rights of women. I have nothing to lose and so much to gain from this struggle.’

Georgia Hanias is Canadian freelance journalist based in London. For more information about the Caravan project, please contact the charity GirlsNotBrides

African grannies go solar

‘Only 300 solar power engineers live in the whole of Africa – and they’re grandmothers,’ insists Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy with all seriousness. ‘People will say this is nonsense, but there is not one solar engineer in any of the 28 African countries I have been to who comes from a village and stays in that village. They all live in cities abroad. The only ones left are the grandmothers we’ve trained.’

The Indian social activist and founder of the Barefoot College is determined to help poor rural communities gain access to light. He says electricity is the biggest expense for families in remote areas and the only solution is to solar-electrify villages – with the help of grandmothers.

Bunker Roy shares a joke with one of his trainee grandmothers.

Bata Bhurji

‘I’m challenging the conventional mindset of how to bring solar energy to communities,’ explains Roy in his office at the Barefoot College, in Tilonia, India. ‘There’s this myth that ordinary, rural people – including women and grandmothers – cannot fabricate, install and manage sophisticated solar technology. It’s not true and we have exploded that myth.’

Roy established the Barefoot College in 1971 to teach illiterate people from remote villages basic skills in professions such as architecture and engineering. The courses help empower villagers to service their own communities and to reduce their dependency on outside institutions.

‘You cannot address rural problems with urban solutions. The answers lie with rural people,’ says Roy. This is particularly true when it comes to lighting homes. ‘It is impossible to bring electricity to small, remote villages with a conventional grid. It costs over $70,000 a kilometre and companies make communities dependent on outside engineers.’

The key is not simply to install solar technology, but to teach people to repair and maintain it first. ‘Solar units are out of action for months because of a very small part that can be repaired in five minutes,’ complains Roy. ‘Nobody comes to fix them because there is this ridiculous system of call centres and maintenance support, which is often based in the city. Companies don’t bother with remote villages – they couldn’t care less.’

‘You cannot address rural problems with urban solutions. The answers lie with rural people’

The school began training uneducated rural Indian men as solar engineers in 1990 but 10 years later Roy decided to train only women, because the men were too restless. The moment they gained a qualification they left their villages to look for work in the cities. ‘Women, on the other hand, are committed to staying in their communities. They have roots with their children and grandchildren and want to improve their future.’

The Indian government covers the cost of interviewing and training the women. The course is a six-month hands-on programme that teaches the basics of making, installing, and repairing circuit boards for solar lamps and panels. Most of the women and instructors are illiterate, so hand signals and drawings are used to teach. Despite this setback, every student excels. ‘Illiterate people never forget. They only have their memory to rely on, which makes them concentrate harder in class.’

He also praises their ability to learn and share their skills: ‘We trained three women in Afghanistan who have now gone on to train 27 more women and to help solar-electrify over 100 villages across the country,’ he says.

The success of the programme has prompted the Indian government to pay the $250,000 cost of setting up five new Barefoot Training Centres in Africa and to solar-electrify 25,000 African homes.

Roy says his approach is a bargain that exceeds everyone’s expectations. ‘We can solar-electrify 100 villages, train 120 grandmothers and light 11,000 houses in 26 countries in Africa for a total of $2.5 million, which is what [US economist working on the UN/Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Project] Jeff Sachs spends on just one village in Africa! Yet that is the ideal development model that the UN is trying to push, which is ridiculous and a waste of money. Villagers just want light – so give them light.’

Georgia Hanias is a freelance journalist in London.