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Review for High Atlas Foundation, New York, NY, USA

Rating: 5 stars  

This article highlights the potential of women in the Middle Eastern and North Africa region,
specifically Morocco, when given a platform, such as a cooperative, and resources by which they
can carry out economic activity. The article has not been previously published.

Best regards,
Sarita Mehta
Marrakech, Morocco

How cooperatives may be a key factor in social and economic empowerment in the Middle East
and North Africa

A member of the Cooperative Aboghlo Women’s of Ourika is cheered on as she writes her
name in Arabic for the first time (Photo by Fariha Mujeebuddin).

To many people, this coming July 6 marks the passing of another Saturday. But to over 1 billion
people, July 6 is of tremendous significance as it marks the 25th United Nations International Day
of Cooperatives.
Twelve percent of humanity contributes to one of the over three million cooperatives on earth.
Cooperatives not only stimulate local economies but also act as a vehicle for bringing opportunity
and profit to people worldwide, who otherwise would not be actors in the formal sector. This
tangible empowerment is perhaps best embodied by the Cooperative Aboghlo Women of Ourika.
Just a short thirty-minute drive outside of Marrakech to T’nine Ourika in the Al Haouz province,
located across the street form a furniture store is a deceivingly unremarkable storefront. Peering
through the glass display case you will find packages of couscous and dried herbs sitting alongside
bowls overflowing with chocolate, pistachio, almond and walnut cookies. All of which is made
from local Moroccan ingredients.
But this is not the real gem found inside the Cooperative Aboghlo.
The true beauty is hidden away on the second floor of the co-op, where 23 women, sit in circles
and talk back and forth. They are not making casual conversation, instead, they are debating
various aspects of the internal and external marketing for their cooperative. For hours, these
women engage in conversations about how to better spread the word about their product, how to
enforce the timeliness of each respective worker, and how to resolve problems of communication
and organization - issues every business must grapple with.

This in itself is remarkable, but it is even more so when one is reminded of the context. The
discrepancy in opportunities and education of women compared to men is widely experienced in
our world. This creates an uneven playing field for women - from the time they are little girls they
are not given the same support as their male counterparts. The distributional consequences are
crippling: the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has the lowest rate of women
employment in the world; seventy-five percent of MENA women are excluded from the
workforce. Most women in the co-op could not read or write Arabic, now they are taking literacy
classes at the co-op and are able to write their names and read street signs.
When considering these astonishing circumstances, it is obvious these women, who are
successfully managing their own well-established cooperative, are extraordinary exceptions. But
that should not be the case. It is just and right to commend the women of this cooperative, but
the ladies of the Cooperative Aboghlo are a much-needed reminder not only of what is possible
but of what should be.
The cooperative started in October 2016 with ten women from one village. Now, there are thirty-
three women from five different villages actively participating. In addition to selling from various
products from their brick and mortar site, the co-op exports directly to major internationally
recognized cosmetic companies. These women set an example of what is possible when given
education and opportunity.
Women’s active participation in the labor force can have a tremendous positive impact on the
developing economies of Morocco and other MENA states. The McKinsey Global Institute found
that supporting women’s economic advancement could add 12 trillion dollars to the global GDP by
2025 and grow MENA’s economy by eighty-five percent. The World Bank estimates that higher
female labor force participation rates could lead to a twenty-five percent average increase in
household incomes.
The root of the issues of female participation in the labor force lies in inactivity - not
unemployment. Family opposition and traditional gender roles create rigid barriers for women,
especially in a rural setting, their domain is confined to that of the domestic. However,
globalization and increased pushes for equality have ushered in a new wave of changes.
Moudawana, or Morocco’s family code addressing gender equality and rights by raising the
minimum legal age of marriage and limiting divorce and polygamy terms, among other terms, thus
giving back the innate rights of women that have long been forgone. Morocco decreased barriers
to form cooperatives further encouraging women’s involvement in the economy. This is a huge
step forward for Morocco in addressing the systemic inequalities that are so deeply integrated.
This progress, though commendable and remarkable, is just the first step. The path to sustainable
development and equality is one that is not easily trekked. Through their partnership with the
High Atlas Foundation, a Moroccan NGO, the cooperative was given a platform and the skills
training necessary to grow tremendously. The cooperative embodies what is possible with this
support and facilitation of development.
The time for these changes is long overdue. The time for these changes is most certainly now. It
starts with the simplest action - it starts with the women of Cooperative Aboghlo Women of
Ourika taking initiative, the children of Morocco attending school, and most importantly, it starts
with the education of the marginalized people.

The future should not be a mere continuation of the past. It takes a single lifetime of empowered
women to spurn generations of empowered girls.
Sarita Mehta is a student at the University of Virginia studying Politics and Economics,

Role:  Volunteer