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Morocco’s safe space for girls to learn

By Celeste Hicks in Rabat, additional reporting by Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Tuesday, 5 December 2017 15:38

The creation of girls’ dormitories in rural areas across ­Morocco is giving female students new opportunities to learn. “I feel safe here. There’s no school in my village, so this is the only way I could continue my studies,” says 17-year-old Meriem Qaqa, who is in her second year of studying for her baccalaureate. “My mum never went to school, but today it’s an old-fashioned idea that girls should not get an education. I think it’s much better to finish school ­before I get married and have children.”

During the week, Qaqa stays in a Dar Taliba (home of the students, in Arabic) boarding house for girls in the small town of Sidi Yahya Zaer, about 10km south of the Moroccan ­cap­ital, Rabat. On weekends, she travels home to her parents’ house in Sidi ­Bettache, a town about 30km away that has no school for students beyond the age of 15.

While teenage boys are expected to ­either hitch rides or rent a room close to their school, for many Moroccan parents, the only way they can accept their teenage daughters staying away to study is if they are in a reputable dormitory. Such institutions are becoming more and more common.

The government programme to build the Dar Taliba project was established with the launch of the ­Initiative ­Nationale pour le Développement ­Humain (INDH) by King Mohammed VI in 2005. The INDH programme, which delivered investment in social projects of some D3.9bn in 2013, recognises Moroccan parents’ fears and has tried to respond in a way sensitive to local values. Today, the Dar Taliba scheme has built up a network of around 130 girls’ boarding houses across the country. They provide free accommodation and food for the students and peace of mind for the parents.


Fears of daughters running into ­trouble are well known across the country. Mustapha Fadel, an English teacher at Sidi Ahmed Ben Maji school in the commune of Ghessat, near Ouarzazate, tells The Africa Report about the case of a talented student whose ­father refused to let her study beyond ­primary school. “She begged me several times to talk to her father,” he says. “He asked if I could be her guarantor, whether I would look after her if she fell pregnant. Of course, I could not.” Fadel adds that the girl, now 15, just got married.

The consequences of these obstacles for Morocco’s girls are far-reaching. ­Although around 99% of girls complete primary education, that figure drops to 80% for the secondary level (ages 12-14) and just over half for the baccalaureate level (ages 15-17).

For girls in rural areas, just 18% of them will go on to complete schooling up to the age of 17. This compares with 63% of boys nationally and 34% of young males in the rural areas. The overall adult illiteracy rate for rural women is 42%, according to official statistics.

The girls who stay in Dar Taliba are looked after by a team of adults who are on duty all day, every day. The girls have to respect strict rules. At Sidi Yahya Zaer, the girls must be up at 6am and back at the dormitory by 5pm. Internet and phones are banned, and television time is limited.

Questions about whether the girls are allowed to go out in the evenings or spend time with boys were met with raised eyebrows. In the evenings, girls chat quietly on bunkbeds in their rooms, which are painted pink, or get on with homework.


“Of course we have discipline and rules, but we’ve never had to ask a girl to leave for bad behaviour,” says Najat ElMasrar, the matronly director of the Dar Taliba at Sidi Yahya Zaer. “I’m sure without this most of these girls would not be in school. We provide a safe space.”

Competition for places is fierce and a commission assesses each girl’s ­financial situation, with priority given to orphans. “We had more than 100 applications for just 60 places,” says ElMasrar. “We simply can’t accommodate everyone who wants to come here.”

Each dormitory has a complex funding structure that involves central government money channelled through the INDH, which is managed by the interior ministry, for the construction and furnishing of the buildings.

Other help comes in the form of grants of land, free electricity from the local authorities and partnerships with donors and charities for food, blankets and stationery. For example, the Sidi Yahya Zaer Dar Taliba, which accommodates 64 girls aged 12 to 18, has received help from the American International Women’s Association in Rabat, which has donated solar panels, books and furniture. The Dar Taliba network in the northern region of Al Hoceima, which accommodates about 300 girls in nine boarding houses, has received €34m ($36m) in support from the European Union (EU), which has contributed to the renovation of buildings, walls and toilet blocks.


“These are sometimes not just the first girls in the family to get secondary education,” explains EU ambassador to Morocco Rupert Joy. “They are sometimes the first children to do so.”

He points out that families often sign up quickly for the Dar Taliba scheme once they are confident that the dormitories are safe and well run. The boarding houses are making an impact. Between 1998 and 2013, the number of girls completing their baccalaur­eate jumped from 32% to 54%; in rural ­areas, the numbers more than doubled. There is also some evidence that girls are now starting to outperform boys at this level of education, according to the EU.

For the girls, the benefits are obvious. “I think it’s sad that some parents don’t let their daughters continue school,” says 17-year-old Meriem Guerrab, who stays at the Sidi Yahya Zaer Dar Taliba and is studying law and Arabic. “Boys and girls are equal, and I’m proving that by getting an education.”

From the April 2017 print edition

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