School for rural girls in Morocco

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JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World. Like many countries around the globe, Morocco has a problem with gender inequality in schools. Female literacy in the North African nation lags well behind that of men. And in rural areas, girls who do learn to read and write rarely get a chance to go beyond primary school. But as Alexa Dvorson reports from Morocco, one women's organization is trying to change that.

ALEXA DVORSON: Time traveling comes easily at Jemaa el Fna, the giant, fabled square in the heart of Marrakech. Snake charmers compete for attention with ancient Berber melodies, and shops overflow with incense and plump dried figs strung like amber beads. But right next door is a boutique selling tight t-shirts that say ?Don't be jealous? in English. They're probably meant for tourists, but this could be a subliminal message to men as Moroccan women take more charge of their lives. No fewer than three articles in the Moroccan constitution guarantee equal rights for all citizens. And the women at this fundraising party a few miles away are putting them into practice. The Moroccan chapter of Soroptomists, a worldwide women's organization with roots in 1920s California, opened a tuition-free boarding school for rural girls. That's no small achievement, says founding director Touria Binebine.

TOURIA BINEBINE: We are a poor country. We have no gas, no diamonds, nothing. But we did build a boarding house for 200 girls. And we did find the money, so we are soroptomists, and in soroptomist you have optimism, and we are optimistic.

DVORSON: The students are optimistic too. 13-year-old Hakima wants to join the police force to fight crime when she grows up. As she rattles off part of the school's curriculum: math, science, French and Arabic, she's joined by her friend Rezlan, who wants to be a pilot for Morocco's national airline, and Karima, who loves English literature. For all their diverse aspirations, these girls have plenty in common. They'd never have gone beyond primary school if they hadn't come here, because the distance from their rural homes to the nearest secondary school was too great, as Karima explains.

KARIMA: The school was very, very far. That's why I came here. And I was given a really golden opportunity.

DVORSON: When she's not reading George Orwell or John Steinbeck, Karima, who's already completed her baccalaureate, works as a teacher's aide to help the younger girls with their studies.

KARIMA: You know, such boarding houses teach you a lot. You learn how to be far from your parents, you learn how to be independent, how to interact with other people, and you learn how to treat them.

LEILA BINEBINE: Well here we are in the library. What you can see there if you want to follow me?

DVORSON: With her sister Touria, Leila Binebine founded North Africa's first chapter of Soroptomists ten years ago.

BINEBINE: I definitely think Morocco is deeply changing. Will is everything.


DVORSON: And will is what drives 14 year-old Khazma, who's in her third year at the boarding school. She says living here is like being part of a big family.


DVORSON: ?We can work alongside men,? she says, explaining that the form of Islam taught at this school emphasizes gender equality. She's convinced that this is the key to progress in Moroccan society, and she draws inspiration from women in Europe and the US who balance their careers with family life. In fact, Khazma doesn't have to look that far for role models, two high-profile Moroccan cities, including Marrakech, have women mayors. To Leila Binebine, providing access to higher education for girls like Khazma and her classmates is nothing less than a civic responsibility.

BINEBINE: How can you call yourself a citizen if you do not take part in the development of your country? The citizens, people have to make the change. We are the change.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And do you feel that you have a lot of support in the wider community?

BINEBINE: Sure, sure. I can tell you because the girls that we bring from the country, their parents are not intellectual, they have never been to the city, and they are supporting us.

DVORSON: Well, not everyone. Sometimes the fall semester starts with a few girls missing if their parents decide to marry them off from the age of 16. But thanks to what's known as the Arab telephone, or word of mouth, many other girls from rural Morocco will be lining up to take their place. For The World, this is Alexa Dvorson on the outskirts of Marrakech.