Transforming horizons in rural Morocco

Research conducted in Morocco reveals the positive community impact of sustainable agricultural initiatives when preceded by women's empowerment workshops, leading to participatory action, enhanced community well-being and decentralisation. By Yossef Ben-Meir

By Yossef Ben-Meir

Since 2016, the High Atlas Foundation has implemented self-discovery workshops that encourage and equip women in rural Morocco to recognise their intrinsic value, identify their goals and strategically consider their plans for the future. The "Imagine" programme takes place over four days and provides a space for pursuing personal and collective empowerment.

"Imagine" uses a rights-based approach that integrates Morocco’s family code – moudawana – and facilitates women's exploration of their legal protections. Cooperative-building activities also enable women to increase their financial independence, providing them with access to equitable development.

Based on self-discovery, this multi-day experience has transformed the lives of nearly 1,032 women to date in 45 empowerment workshops conducted by HAF since 2016."

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— High Atlas Foundation (@AtlasHigh) March 19, 2022


"Imagine" impact on women

The High Atlas Foundation recently conducted a comparative impact analysis with two groups of women in the Toubkal rural municipality of the Taroudant province following two climate initiatives. In 2017, HAF hosted an Imagine empowerment and development experience with women in Aguerzrane village.

During the experience, the participants examined social relationships in their lives that influence their ability to advance their goals. Throughout the workshop, the women further considered their outlook on work and money, emotions and body, sexuality and spirituality (in a Moroccan-Islamic context), and their visions for the future.

Following this participatory planning experience, the women of Aguerzrane decided to establish an organic fruit tree and medicinal herb nursery. This method of cultivation, the women realised, would generate income through plant sales in their region, as well as contributing to the existing household needs of the community.

The nursery was built in 2018 on newly constructed agricultural terraces – used to strengthen the previously eroding mountainside – and has been operating productively ever since. The provision of regular technical training is provided by highly qualified volunteers through the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer programme.

"Imagine" Empowerment Program poster (source: Facebook; High Atlas Foundation)
For climate-smart agriculture to have a positive impact on the lives of rural women, their families, communities and the nation as a whole, the participation of women and girls must be front and centre

The second village, Missour, is located one kilometre north of Aguerzrane. In 2018, HAF received and met a request from farmers there for cherry, walnut and almond trees.

In the case of this community, by way of comparison, the Imagine workshop and participatory methods were not implemented, but the farmers received, planted and maintained the trees based on the quantity and variety they preferred.

Personal development vs. status quo

HAF then sponsored a graduate thesis study to examine the social and economic effect on both villages – Aguerzane, which participated in the women's empowerment workshop prior to receiving seeds and materials; and Missour, where trees were provided without inclusive participatory planning.

Researcher Nora Martetschlaeger, spent three months living with the communities, engaging in individual and communal data-gathering procedures to analyse multidimensional poverty.

In her published summary of the analysis, Martetschlaeger found that "although the other village [Aguerzane], where fewer trees were planted, performed worse overall on most poverty indicators, women's participation in education and employment was higher because of more individual and collective awareness and action in those areas".

In Missour, however, the income benefit to women was negligible, despite reported increases in household earnings and food security. There was no increase in girls' participation in education or in women's literacy. Two families did, however, move to the city – likely partially enabled by the new income – where there are more opportunities for girls' participation in education.

This study illuminates a significant challenge in the connection between women's empowerment and scaleable climate action for inclusive systemic change and national resilience. HAF's women's empowerment workshops have proven to be an effective strategy for improving cross-sectoral sustainable development. However, the demand for such strategies is limited by organisational capacity.

Upon reviewing Martetschlaeger's study, HAF took remedial action in Missour and organised Imagine workshops for the village. Funds from the University of Virginia's Darden School have since been allocated to build agricultural terraces on an eroding mountainside designated by the Missour community for their women's group.


No decentralisation without participation

Action remains limited, however, by current capacity: the High Atlas Foundation has 15 empowerment trainers and anticipates planting a minimum of 1.7 million trees with 10,000 farming families in 160 municipalities this year.

These objectives are indicative of a broader structural challenge when it comes to implementing strategic, community-designed solutions. HAF lacks the finances and staff to implement and monitor climate-smart agriculture to ensure that women and girls are the direct beneficiaries, despite having a strategy to achieve national scale.

The study also revealed the potential challenges to implementing decentralisation, without first solidifying participatory experiences at a local level. The enhanced sub-national power afforded by decentralisation will entrench existing class and gender-based stratifications in sub-national jurisdictions.

If climate-smart agricultural projects are not founded on participatory experiences, they could have the same effect of affirming the inequitable distribution of power and resources. Women's and girls' participation and management in all phases of development must be front and centre for climate actions to positively impact their lives, families, communities and country.

Yossef Ben Meir

© High Atlas Foundation 2023

Yossef Ben-Meir is president of the High Atlas Foundation and visiting professor at the University of Virginia.