Announcing the launch of the Global Women’s Project!

Well it certainly has been a while since we last conversed. Apologies to all my readers who’d been trying to contact me, fearing I’d fallen off the face of the earth. Since returning to Melbourne from Morocco I’ve been treading a fine line between busyness and laziness, and the two dispositions have converged to expose a black hole in this blog’s timeline. Rest assured though, I’m alive and well, and with lots of exciting things going on.

So indeed, I have returned to Melbourne, to a more temperate (and temperamental) climate, to the comfort and conversation of friends and family, to my good guitar, and to a new job. I promise to properly update you on how things finished up in Morocco where I was working on the establishment of a women’s project with mothers of street-connected kids, but first I want to share with you something I’ve been working on recently, as part of a wonderful team of individuals: the Global Women’s Project.

The Global Women’s Project (GWP) is a secular, volunteer-run, not-for-profit organisation based in Melbourne. GWP works to support women and girls in developing communities to access literacy and skills training and lifelong learning opportunities which lay the foundation for them to make informed choices and exercise greater control over their lives. GWP currently partners with women-led organisations in Cambodia and Nepal. GWP not only provides financial and technical support for these organisations, but is designed as a global collaborative space, which promotes friendships and cross-cultural ties between women across the world.

So for everyone who supported my work with women in Morocco, and for newcomers to this blog, I invite you to explore GWP’s fabulous new website here.

We’ll be officially launching in the New Year, so make sure you like our Facebook page in order to receive invitations and updates.

And in the meantime, have a very happy New Year, one filled with positivity, friendship, joy, peace and love!

Briony

Fingers crossed we get the gold

Working with Street Children: An Approach Explored by Andrew Williams

This evening I write on the back of another day of developments for our Women’s Project. I don’t know where I’m getting the energy to jot something down for the blog, but I imagine it’s got something to do with being excited. I started with a meeting at 8.30 this morning and I’m just sitting down now after finishing a round of family home visits. It’s 11.30pm, so that’s a long day in anyone’s book. In fact, there’s been a lot going on this week, including the continuation of our workplace training with the women involved in our project, and getting the kids into gear for the new school year.

Also this week I’ve been quite lucky to have been able to spend some time with the very knowledgeable and lovely Andrew Williams. Andrew’s out here on behalf of the Moroccan Children’s Trust to have a look at the work the team here is doing with street children. Andrew is now based in London after 9 years working in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, during which time he established and ran an organisation called Retrak, which aims to support street children and to carve them out new and positive pathways. He’s also written a book called Working with Street Children, which is about, funnily enough, working with street children. It’s been great talking to him about the work he’s been doing in Africa, and hearing his insights about the team’s work here in Morocco. He’s here for another few days during which he’ll be running some training for the Moroccan team; we’re all looking forward to it.

But onto the Women’s Project! This morning, after a couple of early hiccups, including a printer that ran out of toner and temporarily losing Andrew Williams, the director of our organisation, my colleague on the project, Andrew Williams and I, met with the head honcho of the regulatory government body on social policy for this region of Morocco. We traipsed through town with our paperwork to his big, cushy office where we attempted to interest him in our income-generating project for mothers of street children. And what’d you know? Apparently, we’re onto a good thing. Not only was he supportive of our project, but he personally invited us to submit a funding proposal to the government department responsible for the disbursement of a $35 million Spanish Government foreign aid grant which is due to be allocated from the 30th of September. We’re all now in hyperactive mode scrambling to assemble the 15 different documents required by the department. It’d be absolutely incredible if our project were able to secure some of these funds, not only for the project itself and the women it aims to support, but for raising the profile of Groupe Maroc Horizons and its Street Child Centre.

What can I say but incha’allah!
* To order Andrew’s book in Australia, click here.

Women’s Project Update, Morocco: Getting the Government on Board!

I can hardly believe another two weeks has passed since I last updated this blog. So much has happened during that time, and on so many fronts, and it’s just hit me that I only have three weeks left in Taroudant, Morocco working with local NGO Groupe Maroc Horizons (GMH) and Moroccan Children’s Trust (MCT). As I reflect on what I and the GMH/MCT team have achieved in the short five and a half months since I arrived here, and anticipate the exciting times that lie ahead, I can’t help but be incredibly proud of everyone who’s come together to make this project happen.

This project, is an initiative that aims to provide an income for mothers of street children who visit GMH’s Centre Afak Pour Les Enfants et Leurs Familles en Situations Difficiles. It is a project that has been facilitated and driven by the Moroccan team here, with the support of its London partner, MCT, but that has been formed as a result of months of close consultation with the women who will be benefiting from it.

For the last five months, our weekly women’s group meetings have been the mechanism via which we have fleshed out these women’s challenges and problems, priorities and hopes. Our focus in late months on the development of an income-generating project has stemmed from the women’s own identification of what they see as most useful to them. The weekly meetings have also been a forum for discussion on important issues, like women’s rights, and the occasional social outing or sports session. The memory of being fiercely chased with boxing gloves by the grandmother of one of the kids at the Centre, hijab off and hair flying, will stay with me for quite a while, I imagine!

What we have developed with these women, is in effect a catering service that will provide breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea to the employees of well-populated government offices, who currently find it very difficult to leave their posts to buy food due to workloads and allocated break times. We are currently in the process of establishing partnerships with heads of various administrations, and next week will be meeting with the President of local government himself to present our proposal with the hope we’ll gain his valuable support. Through both formal meetings and informal conversations with those whom the catering project would service, a great deal of interest and encouragement has been generated at the level of government. As similar services are being provided in other parts of Morocco (though these just follow a standard business model), and countless members of government including the administration chiefs have expressed keen interest, all looks good to go. What we are keen to negotiate is a permanent place for the women to use at each administration for the preparation of the food.

This project is promising for a number of reasons. Not only does it address a gap in the service market while providing previously unemployed and uneducated women with the opportunity to make an income, it places socially marginalised women right under the noses of policy-makers. In other words, secondary to the immediate goals of generating an income for these mothers and their families, it is hoped that integrating women into the public domain will help make their unique situations more visible to those who can influence public policy in their favour.

Whilst this project caters to women’s own strengths, as identified by them, we also hope to provide women with the opportunity to develop their skills and learn new ones. As a first step and to ready the women for their new roles, last week we conducted our first workshop/training module on food preparation and good hygiene practices.  Over the next two weeks we will be conducting modules on basic money management, professional communication and presentation, and other relevant topics. We also hope in the near future to be able to connect the women with training catering to other interests identified by them, literacy being just one of them. Below you can see a couple of photos from Thursday’s workshop. I’m happy to announce that I am now the proud Australian owner of the recipe for delicious traditional Moroccan pastry “missimin”!

Discussing good hygiene practices with the Women’s Group

The Women’s Group making traditional “missimin” during a food preparation workshop

Indeed, everything is very exciting; on the brink of being actualised. My only hope is that I’ll get to see the project implemented before I have to get on a plane in three weeks, though I’m afraid to say that timing has never been my strong suit! Nonetheless, I am assured a continued role via email, and who knows – I might even make it my business to return to this wonderful country sooner rather than later!

The advent of a new year…

It’s the advent of the new school year in Morocco, Ramadan is finished, and activities have recommenced at an unfamiliarly rapid pace at the Centre Afak in Taroudannt where I am currently based with the local NGO Groupe Maroc Horizons (GMH) and its British partner organisation, the Moroccan Children’s Trust (MCT).

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In stark contrast to the slow pace during Ramadan and the school holidays, last week saw the 11 members of our team coming together for a whole week of team-building and strategy meetings, arriving at the centre every day at 8.30am for a communal breakfast, not leaving until 5pm when we embarked on home visits to the families who are connected with the centre.

Everyone is excited for the new school year, and to be involved in the creation and support of individual pathways for each child and, in line with the holistic approach taken by the centre, each of their family members. It was a long (indeed yet unfinished) process last week, as we addressed each of the case files of the 30 families who visit the Centre Afak for children and their families in situations of difficulty, as a team, assessing how we planned to support and foster the children’s development, and identifying ways we could support their families. The discussion was animated and enthusiastic, even though the heat has not yet let up (apparently this summer has been extraordinary – longer than usual and with temperatures daily exceeding 45C). Arabic bounced rapidly off the walls, while our director the wonderful Abdelleh Soussi translated into French and made notes on the white board, indicating the child and his/her family’s situation past, present and plans for this year. These discussions were typed up after the finish of each day and distributed amongst the team, ensuring everyone was on the same page with a unified goal for each child/family.

The women’s project, on which I am primarily working here, is also taking off and being embraced with open arms by everyone. It’s so exciting to think that after only five months in the country, I have contributed to the very near creation of an income-generating project that incorporates psycho-social support for the (often single) mothers of children who visit our centre. Not only is the project trial planned to go ahead in a few weeks, pending the approval of government officials whose office buildings we hope to be the focus of our breakfast- and lunch-time catering project, but we are now considering how we can expand our horizons to assisting women individually (rather than as a group) to realise their goals and ambitions. Next week, my Moroccan colleague Iqbal and I will continue our family visits to speak to the women about how they feel we can best support them.

It is very difficult for poor, uneducated women in Taroudannt to find employment. It is even harder for them to find employment that also allows time to look after their children. For many women, including young women and girls, prostitution is a very real pathway. Some of the mothers of the children who visit the centre are trying to make livings selling clothes and other goods, but cannot make enough money and are forced to sell their bodies. Children are often exposed to this activity, their tiny communal family-living spaces separated from it by nothing but a thin curtain. Supporting mothers to find gainful employment or alternative pathways will be an increasing focus of GMH’s work in the coming year.

Though I’m coming to the end of my placement here (I’ve only got five weeks left! How time has flown!) I will continue to keep you all updated on the work of GMH, MCT and the Centre Afak in the weeks to come. I’m sure there’ll be lots to report!

 

Revelations in Conversation: Development and Education

Today, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my dad over a bottle of red and dinner a little while ago back in Australia.  As usual it was a lively discussion (made livelier by the red, of course), and from memory it was about asylum seekers, the sorry state of politics in Australia and the fact that Tony Abbott is a cretin. Now, for those who know my dad, I’m sure you can attest that while he can be quite long-winded and on occasion might be guilty of talking at you rather than with you, most of the time you are happy to listen anyway because he is basically a genius.

On this particular occasion, he had posed a completely reasonable, rational – and most importantly humane – solution to the immigration debate in Australia. It seemed to come to him ‘just like that’ and was so easy and logical I was pissed off I hadn’t thought of it (though I can’t for the life of me remember what it is now – I’m not going to lie, the red probably had something to do with this…)

After my attempts to convince him to run for Parliament were thwarted with a lame “I’m-too-old-and-cynical”, I had a brainwave: “Dad! Hey, Dad! You should start a blog! You have really good ideas and I think people would be really interested to hear what you have to say! And, besides, you actually know everything?! Do you know that?! You actually know everything!” He replied with “Do you know where the word ‘blog’ comes from?” which pretty much proved my point.*

But I digress.

My boyfriend, who has, to put it euphemistically, had a less than inspiring upbringing, often points out to me (unsurprisingly) the importance of good parenting and that I have been extremely lucky to have grown up around stimulating conversation and debate. It’s very true. I’ve been blessed to have parents who have a strong sense of social justice, are extremely well-informed and critical thinkers, and who never let us eat dinner in front of the TV. For my sister and me growing up (and even now when we’re at home), family meal time was always an integral part of the day, and it was sitting around at the dinner table, engaged in conversation with my parents, that I first developed my critical awareness, my thirst for information and the concept of endless possibility. To mum and dad, I really have to thank you for that.

Thinking about this in the context of where I am currently working – Taroudannt, Morocco – led me to ponder what kinds of conversations the kids here, who come to our centre, have had with their parents, relatives and peers growing up. Most of them have illiterate parents, many have illiterate single mothers, and many of them were excluded from attending school until our organisation organised their necessary birth papers. Notwithstanding parental love, it’s an upbringing so far removed from my own experiences, and one which has really forced me to think about what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t had those dinner time conversations.

As you might have guessed, I give full credit to those parents who understand the role they can play in the provision of opportunity and communication of possibility for their kids. So not surprisingly, I’m on board with the majority when it comes to a broader understanding of the importance of education in lifting nations’ populations out of poverty, particularly in light of the inter-generational benefits. Education’s just pretty damn important. However, in the absence of nation-wide education programs by the world’s governments, and in light of the 793 million illiterate adults in the world (two thirds of whom are women who are responsible for their children’s upbringing), how do we achieve the goal of ‘education for all?’[1]

Having not yet asked my father, who should very well be Ban-Ki Moon’s successor, I would propose that an ability to do so depends on your definition of education. I’m not saying it isn’t a massive and complicated task, but I reckon we might get closer to achieving it if we start thinking outside the box.

For me, this involves pulling apart the concept of education…just a little bit.

Firstly, it means moving away from a traditional understanding of education as consigned to the classroom. Granted, for those who like counting things, the number of kids attending school is a pretty easy way to track progress on world education. However, it’s certainly not an indicator of quality of education, and it certainly doesn’t account for the education that exists outside the classroom. Secondly, it means moving away from the traditional teaching paradigm in which students learn by rote, and there is a one-way flow of information and opinion from top to bottom (this paradigm shift has gained momentum in the developed world, though I would suggest not so much in the developing one).

Instead, if we understand that the role/s of education is/are to foster critical awareness, convey possibility, and develop a thirst for new knowledge, and if we understand that every person has the ability to be critically aware and thus to create their own knowledge, then education need not just take place in schools. It becomes the realm of every day conversation; the realm of the community group meeting, internet forums, social media platforms, the bus, the dinner table. Education becomes any question or conversation designed to stimulate debate or foster in somebody a critical awareness.

Take the quest to combat female genital excision or mutilation (commonly called FGM), a practice that involves the ritualistic cutting and sewing up of young girls’ genitals, usually by women members of a community, without anaesthetic or sterile equipment. The health complications of FGM can be horrendous, and it is a practice so widespread in Africa that an estimated 92 million girls over 10 today are currently living with the consequences.[2] It is a practice that over time has truly built itself into the cultural fabric of countless communities.

As a Westerner, or any outsider for that matter, I can’t imagine one would have much luck going into an FGM-practising community in order to ‘educate’ community members on the health risks by saying “You shouldn’t be doing that! Look what you’re doing!”, though I’m sure it’s an approach tried and tested (and failed) many a time. This kind of approach is likely to be resented, is unlikely to change attitudes, not to mention it is no-one’s place to enter a community that isn’t theirs, and tell that community that a long-standing cultural practice, no matter now barbaric one thinks it is, is wrong.

What has a far greater potential for success, not to mention is far more ethical, is to ask strategic questions; to attempt to educate through the development of critical awareness. For me, it’s all about finding a way to ask: “Why is it that you do this? Why do you practice this? Why do you believe this? Is there an alternative, or a better way of doing this?” Being able to start such a conversation, and to offer alternatives, can foster a real understanding of why it is that certain things are practised, both for the person asking the questions, and the ‘questionee’. This is indeed a form of education; and one which importantly places the generation of knowledge in the hands of the ‘student’. Because the ‘student’ or community member controls the generation of knowledge, this type of education by conversation has the potential to achieve development goals from the grassroots, as well as to empower people to make their own decisions, rather than have them made for them.

The director of our organisation here in Morocco, talks often about the importance of “having conversations” with the kids at the centre outside the prearranged classes, saying “we’re not just here to teach the kids, we’re here to increase their personalities”. Though the expression is rather amusing, what he means is endeavouring to stimulate those conversations that I had with my parents around the dinner table: to invite the kids to ponder, reflect and develop their critical awareness and excitement for learning. Though their lives are tough in many ways, the enthusiasm these kids now have for learning is truly infectious. On top of their formal teaching roles, I really do believe that the friendly conversational roles played by the staff at the centre contribute in a meaningful way to these kids’ desire and thirst for new ideas and knowledge.

And for me personally, even though it’s sometimes demoralising when I realise it’s impossible to know everything, it is my desire to be informed that is truly the driver for my mental well-being. It’s my critical awareness that allows me to be able to speak up for things I find unjust, or to make an informed vote, or to pursue a career in development. For me, as it is for many others, including the children who I work with at the centre, and the mothers with whom I am working to develop an income-generating enterprise, it is also the personal satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that you have knowledge, that you can create it yourself, and that with it you have the power to make changes, that is so important and empowering. It is the critical awareness, which comes through education, and more broadly conversation, that is the precursor for bigger change. Thanks, mum and dad for starting that conversation for me, and thanks to everyone else for continuing it and putting up with my opinions.

And lastly (and please, don’t judge me)…in an attempt to satisfy this thirst for new ideas, opinions, information and debate, and to keep abreast of what people are saying about the state of Australian politics while I’m over here in Morocco, I signed up to Twitter recently (become my disciple by clicking the Twitter link on the right sidebar, or find me at @briony_mack). After following #auspol for a few days, and coming to the conclusion that they call it Twitter because there are so many twits, I did receive a tweet today that said:

“If you want to build a ship, teach people to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Yep, it’s a good one!

*The word ‘blog’ comes from the word ‘web-log’. Pretty self-explanatory, really.


[1] 2012, CIA World Fact Book <www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/>

[2] 2012 World Health Organisation fact sheet no. 241 <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/&gt;