We arrive in the village in Larache province in Morocco via several wrong turns and a long bumpy earth road that wasn’t really a road at all, to find a huge tent erected on a patch of grass. A large number of women are all shouting animatedly into a microphone.Watch Nikki speak on women’s rights
As we enter the tent, an older woman is speaking: ‘We have no roads. When a woman is in labour, how can she get to a hospital if she needs one?’
A younger woman holding a toddler takes over: ‘And we have no school nearby. How can we learn? We want to send our children to school so that they can learn!’ Another older woman grabs the microphone: ‘If a woman is raped, what can we do about it? Nothing! No doctor, no support.’
The conversation goes on. No-one seems backward in coming forward. The young woman in charge from the Democratic League for Women’s Rights in Larache (LDDF) then asks: ‘Well why don’t you talk to your elected representatives?’
The expression of disgust is collective. ‘We have tried. They won’t listen. Or they come to us when it is election time and promise all kinds of things and then we vote for them and they go away and we never hear from them again until the next election. They are not interested in us or in our problems.’
Entrenched attitudes and behaviours about how women and men should behave are not changed by a Constitution
The needs are strongly felt. But this is also part of a session where the LDDF is training and preparing these women to speak out, to challenge their local leaders, and eventually to stand for council positions themselves. So it is good that they are strongly expressed.
There is a real opportunity for change as the 2011 Moroccan Constitution set in place a legal system that supports gender equality, and a quota system of 27% of women in local and 30% in regional elections. Since 2011, members of both Houses of Parliament are elected for by indirect universal suffrage. For the House of Councillors, this includes elected members of professional chambers, salaried workers, the CGEM (Moroccan business confederation) and local groups, so in theory everyone has a voice.
But entrenched attitudes and behaviours about how women and men should behave are not changed by a Constitution, however progressive, and even if, as in Morocco’s case, it is supported by a King who holds both power and respect in society. Morocco remains one of the most unequal countries in the world when it comes to gender equality.
Which is why Oxfam Morocco, together with the Democratic Association of Women in Morocco (ADFM) convened a session on gender and local democracy in Parliament the day before we met the women in the village.
Eminent speakers, both male and female, spoke passionately about the need to translate the framework of the Constitution into laws that were then implemented not just on paper or in big cities, but in every tiny village in every region as part of a system of decentralisation. Morocco has a proud tradition of feminist organising and there was no shortage of women speaking.
Amal Alomri, from the Moroccan Workers’ Union (UMT), started by pointing out that ‘most policies are developed in the absence of women. We have had gender budgeting since 2005, but despite the efforts of the women’s movement and the new Constitution, we remain at the bottom of the rankings on gender, and have even gone backward on some of them. Words are no longer enough. We must make sure that women are central to our implementation of the decentralisation process.’
Khadija Errebbah from ADFM, noted that there were now more women representatives at local level, but much more was needed to be done and there was a real danger that things might get worse rather than better.
And Abdellatif Ouammou, member of the Progessive Action Group, had some very practical suggestions. First, ensuring that women are elected and on local council committees. Second, electing them as Chairs of the most powerful committees such as finance, as well as the committees like social affairs that are more usually considered a female preserve.
Fatima, from another village in Larache, is planning to stand for election as the first women candidate in the local elections, with the support of her local women’s association. She told me:
‘I want to stand as the first woman councillor in this area in order to defend women, but also because there are no women leaders. Rural women too have dreams and ambitions but they are not able to fulfil them. I also want to stand because I realised that I can achieve in politics what I can’t achieve in any other way – pushing for girls to go to school, for example, or sorting the many problems we have here with transport, where many women are crammed into small trucks for long periods of time just to get to work.
And I stood because of my children. When my daughter asked me if she would have to leave school once she finished primary school like so many other girls do, I was really moved. I want to support her and many others like her in finishing school and not marrying too young.’
Fatima and others like her will be role models for the next generation. She knows that change will take time, and that there are many conservative forces standing in her way. But she is not afraid. And next time, she says, she will win.