'We're afraid of losing our girls': After the earthquake, Morocco's girls are vulnerable to abuse and neglect
Arriving in a quiet neighbourhood on the outskirts of Marrakech, Maryam Montague walks through large gates to enter the premises previously used as an all-boys school.
In the aftermath of the earthquake which devastated Morocco on September 8, the school has become a place for middle and high school students, both girls and boys, to live and continue their education.
It is reported that around 6,000 students from the most affected areas in Morocco will be enrolled in six different schools, a scheme instigated by the Moroccan government to keep children in school despite the destruction of their local schools.
Upon entering, Montague headed into the courtyard, where a party had been arranged for the children to celebrate a national holiday in an attempt to distract them after what they had been through in the past weeks.
"Many girls talk about obsessively thinking about the earthquake and being continuously worried about their families and futures"
“There was a DJ, music, and they had an animator hosting games,” Maryam told The New Arab. “The boys were participating, but not the girls. There is more space culturally for boys – it’s more open for boys.”
Setting up in a room where she would be meeting with the girls to talk primarily about menstrual health as part of Project Soar, Maryam prepared to welcome groups of girls to chat about how they were doing in the wake of the earthquake.
“I asked one of the girls how she felt,” Maryam said. “She said she felt nothing. That she had no feelings. Other girls just wept.”
In recent weeks, there have been reports and warnings about Moroccan girls at risk of sexual assault and forced marriage after a stream of messages posted online by men promoting the marriage and exploitation of underage girls.
"These are issues we care deeply about at Project Soar," Maryam, who along with 100 facilitators has been running workshops on gender-based violence and child marriage, said.
“We are on the alert for these issues. We slam and don’t approve of that [the messages]. It is extremely inappropriate. But you have to make the distinction between men and boys behaving badly on social media and a real threat. I just don’t see that as the greatest concern.”
Once girls are in a safe, all-girls space at the boarding schools, Montague asks if any of the girls have heard about girls being abused or exploited in this way.
“None of them responded yes,” she said, emphasising she has now heard from hundreds of girls in the month since the earthquake.
What Maryam says is a much more significant concern right now is the physical and mental impact of trauma on girls — “deep wounds on such a massive scale” — and how it will have a knock-on effect on their education and future opportunities.
A young girl told Maryam that she had just got out of her crumbling house with her grandmother when the house collapsed before her eyes.
“What is this?” the girl asked her grandmother, completely unaware of what an earthquake was.
“It’s the end of the world,” her grandmother replied.
“One girl said to me she couldn’t think; that she couldn’t study,” Maryam recalled. “Many girls talk about obsessively thinking about the earthquake and being continuously worried about their families and futures.”
After their worlds fell apart, girls were separated from their families, many for the first time.
“The families think that it is a good initiative [to take girls from their villages to boarding schools],” Salal Noodin, who has been visiting affected villages and talking to children’s guardians, told The New Arab. “But it is not easy [for them].”
Typically, schools had been only a few kilometres away from each village, with children, especially girls, staying near to their families. In boarding schools, girls are now up to three hours away from home.
Although Maryam understands the government’s decision to separate girls from their families so that their schooling is not lost, she said it is one of the most difficult aspects of this post-disaster recovery on girls.
“They girls are really struggling with anxiety about what is happening with their family members,” said Maryam, describing how the girls keep recounting their entire villages crumbling during the earthquake, taking the lives of many beloved relatives.
Even though there are phones at the boarding schools to ring home, many families in remote villages do not have easy access to a phone to hear news from their children, or children to hear from their families.
“There was one girl who said she was in her room [when the earthquake happened] and noticed the room started to fill with dust,” Maryam said. “She said she went next door and then saw the roof of her house collapsed on her mother. Her mother severely broke her legs and is now in the hospital.”
The girl’s brothers were dispatched to help in the relief efforts and her other family members are living in tents.
“I just don’t know how everyone is,” she told Maryam.
"These girls are deeply traumatised and need psychological accompaniment... But it needs to be adapted specifically for teenagers and trauma. We want them to stay in school, contribute, and have careers"
During her sessions, Maryam described how many of the girls weep, saying how they want to go back home to their families, and for life to be normal again.
In contrast, there is a rescue centre that houses mothers with their children and Maryam said this group of girls faired much better than those in boarding schools who had been separated.
“We are hearing a lot of girls talk about constant rumination and obsessive thinking about the earthquake,” Maryam said. “An inability to distance themselves.”
When she asks the girls what single words come to mind about how they were feeling the majority say words similar to “scared”, even though unsure of what they are scared of, and “isolated.”
“They aren’t getting a break,” Maryam said. “So they have sleeping problems and are missing their periods, or bleeding too heavily.”
Having never been away from their maternal figurehead, the girls have the additional worry of learning to sort their own periods for the first time.
At home, girls’ mothers would have helped to sew rags or reusable pads for their daughters to use. At the boarding schools, the girls brought none of these essentials from home and felt they had no one to talk with about.
It’s why Maryam takes hundreds of period products with her when she runs her sessions.
Girls in villages
For the girls still in villages who have been yet moved into boarding schools, or ones in primary school not old enough for boarding schools, the concerns are slightly different.
“These girls need to finish their education,” said Salal. “Right now, they are pretty much doing nothing. If they miss out on one step in the process, they might be given the same job opportunities in the future.”
A lack of sanitation is a safeguarding worry for girls and women in villages.
“Because there aren’t toilets, girls are having to go by the side of the road,” she said. “Culturally, they are very uncomfortable, but they also don’t feel comfortable because there are men and boys watching them.”
Salal has started looking into cases of exploitation among children in the villages, but although he has heard rumours, he hasn’t had this confirmed by locals.
Without intervention, we could lose our girls
Without psychological or therapeutic care, Maryam is concerned about the futures of Moroccan girls after recent advancements in women’s rights, particularly the emphasis on girls’ education.
“We don’t want to lose that momentum,” she said. “This is the first generation moving forward in significant numbers.”
Although Maryam hasn’t heard about any cases of sexual abuse or forced marriage among the girls she has talked with, there is no doubt in her mind these are risks if girls cease to be educated.
And if girls cannot process the trauma they have endured — death, isolation, separation — then it could lead to girls dropping out of school. It would be a huge leap backwards for women’s equality in Morocco, and an increased risk of sexual abuse and child marriage.
The only way forward is resilience planning and therapeutic measures, according to Maryam.
“These girls are deeply traumatised and need psychological accompaniment,” she said. “I think the government is devising that. But it needs to be adapted specifically for teenagers and trauma. We want them to stay in school, contribute, and have careers.”
Without it, Maryam is afraid of what lies ahead for girls.
“We could lose this whole generation of girls,” she concluded. “When you are not functioning at your best, you’re not thinking forward to what you want. You don’t have the space for that."
Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance features writer specialising in social justice issues
Follow her on Twitter: @LaurenMedlicott