For schoolgirls in Morocco, attitudes outpace infrastructure

For schoolgirls in Morocco, attitudes outpace infrastructure
6 min read
23 November, 2016
Schoolgirls sit exams that could decide their futures in a remote area in Morocco, where an education provides an opportunity to escape the restrictions of rural life.
Schoolgirls get the opportunity of a lifetime at the boarding house and school [Frances Bakewell]
High in the sand-brown mounds of Morocco's Atlas Mountains a row of anxious fathers sit quietly waiting for their daughters to finish the entrance exam to a charity-run boarding house.

"Education is everything," says one man, who walked for two hours to get here. "If my daughter is educated, she will know everything about life."

At desks inside, 11-year-olds are bent over their test papers. Nervous girls shift on plastic chairs and the atmosphere is weighted; this is a moment where life could hinge either way. 

If the children get a place here, they will be entitled to free board, books and meals, enabling them to go to the local secondary school.


But for those who aren't accepted, it's likely they will skip secondary school all together and marry young.

They live too far away to travel to the school daily and their parents can't afford the fees for the nearby government boarding houses.

Latifa Aliza - the warm, upright housemother, her hair wrapped in bright pink - laments the fact that many girls must be turned away. 

More than 40 children took the entrance test for this boarding house in Asni but the UK charity Education for All (EFA) has only 12 spaces available. She notes that while attitudes in these Berber villages are changing, demand has outstripped supply.

The Berbers were the original inhabitants of North Africa who speak their own language, Amazigh.

"Back in 2007, when the boarding house first opened, it was very difficult to persuade families to send their girls to school," she says. "Today, Morocco has changed. Now, they want to send their girls to school but we don't have enough places."

There are an estimated 500,000 children out of school in Morocco, according to UNESCO and 75 percent of these live in rural areas, where the stacked, square houses are camouflaged against the soil.  

While the country reached gender equality in primary school education in 2011, the same has yet to be achieved in secondary schools said Mark Waltham, UNICEF's lead on Out Of School Children.

"Most primary schools are relatively small and located within the communities they serve, and there is rarely a need for boarding facilities," he says. "But secondary schools are generally in towns since they have to make efficient use of specialist teachers and facilities."

Changing mindsets

Although UNICEF has no concrete figures, Waltham believes large numbers of children live too far from a secondary school to commute daily so they are forced to board there or stay nearby.

"A lack of boarding facilities is an important barrier to secondary education in most low-income countries, and particularly across Africa, South Asia and East Asia. The issue has a disproportionate impact on girls due to the more stringent segregation and security standards expected by families," he says.

When parents consider sending their daughters to school, security is one their major concerns agrees housemother Aliza. She believes the Asni boarding house is popular because it has built its reputation as "a very safe place".

Aliza herself was lucky - she is educated because she was the second daughter of five children.

"The first daughter stays at home to help with household chores," she says, explaining the mindset. "The second isn't needed so she can go to school. But the third must stay home because by then, the first has been married." 

She used her freedom to go to Marrakech, staying with an aunt while she went to school then university.

When she returned to her village, it felt as if everything had changed. "Everyone respected me," she says. "Usually, women are in the second place to all the men. But for my brother and cousins, it's like now I am an equal." 
Nerves tingle as parents wait to see if their daughters' pass the exam [Frances Bakewell]
She says free board is another big incentive for parents to entrust their daughters to EFA and she wishes the charity - which already runs five boarding houses across Morocco - had the funds to build more.

But Joseph Wales, research officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), believes the answer to Morocco's education issue is more complex.

"In many places, the demand for education seems to be outstripping governments abilities to supply it," says Wales.

"In Kenya, for example, there was a big push to remove secondary school fees in 2007 - resulting in many new students. However, the speed of the change created a major challenge in ensuring there were enough classrooms, resources and teachers in place," he adds.

"This is also about more than infrastructure - particularly in remote regions the question is as much whether there are teachers in school and whether they are teaching when they are there."

Home base
The issue of resources was raised in a 2011 study that looked at the Moroccan government's attempt to improve female attendance by building more boarding houses.

Although thousands of pupils were enrolled, the study found that "the simple provisions of lodging and scholarships to girls does not translate automatically into success in school".

Girls from rural backgrounds needed more support - they were often behind in their work, stigmatised as "yokels" and distracted by homesickness.

Instead, the study's authors - from the Aga Khan Foundation, the ministry of national education and the Academy for Educational Development - found that girls who received both academic and social support achieved better grades and were less likely to drop out.

However, finding enough volunteers and resources to provide this support was a challenge.
While some charity-run boarding houses, such as EFA, pastoral care and extra facilities such as computers, government boarding house are usually more basic, housing up to 200 students at a time. There are just 36 girls in the EFA house that Aliza runs.  
In Asni, the government-run boarding house is vast with huge, cavernous rooms. Next door to EFA, the local boys' boarding house is ramshackle with broken window frames and worn mattresses sat in rickety bunk beds.

Fathers realise the school offers a rare opportunity for their daughters to get a decent education [Frances Bakewell]
For Christina Kwuak - postdoctoral fellow at the Brookings Institute's centre for education - building more free boarding houses is also unrealistic for a lower-middle income country such as Morocco.

Instead, she thinks female attendance in secondary schools could be improved by developing transport networks.

"In most contexts, it might be more feasible to tackle the physical distance to schools by [creating] safe and culturally acceptable transportation options to schools, such as bicycles, than to build [extra] boarding facilities." 

Recently, EFA have started paying for local taxis or mini buses to help children in the al-Haouz region reach the schools, and use the boarding house facilities as day-girls. 

"In terms of sustainable expansion, boarding schools are definitely part of the solution," says the ODI's Joseph Wales.
But for the school system to enable more girls to access secondary school education, they must be treated as part of a wider package.

He says it's important to work with communities to make sure they value female education and feel safe sending their children to school. "Improved links between communities and schools can be a part of this."

After their exams, the girls and their fathers wander away from the EFA boarding house towards soft brown mountain peaks set against flat blue.

For housemother Aliza it's hard to watch them go, knowing some might never make it back.