Why Educate a Girl? Changing worlds in the Atlas Mountains

Credit: Reto Guntli


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The strangest things can happen when you are out for a walk. It helps if you are walking in the grandeur of the High Atlas Mountains and the people you are walking with are the British Ambassador to Morocco and girls from Education For All (EFA), a group of people and circumstances that took Juliet Kinsman, luxury travel expert and evangelist for women’s education, onto a whole new path in her illustrious career.  “I was chatting with Thomas Reilly, the Ambassador, and said to him that EFA is such an extraordinary and unique initiative someone should make a film about it, so he said, why don’t you? As a writer and journalist, I think of myself as a professional storyteller, but I also like to celebrate how the travel and hospitality industry can be a force for good.”

Juliet discussed the idea with Kuba Nowak, a film-maker she has previously worked with, and they jointly decided that they didn’t want to make a promotional film for a charity, they wanted to make an independent short documentary which was really a story of love and support and how that benefitted the girls in terms of getting a secondary education. “Kuba and I had made small films previously in the UK, but we had never made anything like this. It’s a whole different animal when you open it up to do something abroad. I didn’t know anything about the Morocracy, (a local blending of the words ‘Morocco’ and ‘bureaucracy’ that aptly describes the convolutions of working in the country), which was a whole other process.” Once production began there was a lot of work crammed into a few shooting days.

Credit: Reto Guntli

“It was a real honour and privilege to be allowed to spend time in the girl’s dormitories, and we were very sensitive to the fact that these are the girls’ homes, and for them to let us be there and to observe life and capture life, they didn’t make us feel like we were being intrusive, it was very kind of them to let us be part of their family life, as it were.”

For the girls of EFA, now numbering almost two hundred in five boarding houses (a sixth will open in September) and fifty attending university, their fellow students, the house mothers and the boarding house staff, have become their extended families. But the true test of family life is much closer to home, in the remote villages of the High Atlas Mountains the girls come from, where the support of the families and villagers themselves has gone from fears of the girls becoming drawn into the decadence of ‘big city’ life when EFA opened its first boarding house in Asni a decade ago, to celebrating the education, the confidence and the chance of a better future than any of the girls could possibly imagined. Many of those early nervous families and villagers have become EFA’s greatest advocates.

“Going to the villages and seeing how remote they are was what motivated us to make the film. During the recording we spent time with different girls at different stages. We visited Ghita Aït Moulid, who lives in a remote village, and when her mum spoke to us, Kuba and I didn’t understand what she was saying, but suddenly there was a point where everyone in the room started crying and she was obviously revealing something very personal which she’d not told anyone before. Her story was that she was sent away to work when she was seven years old and was subject to terrible abuse from her hosts in Casablanca. We made it very clear that we were making a film and she was sharing this with us, but she clearly felt strongly that she wanted the next generation of girls not to experience what she had experienced. It was because of situations like this that we felt a huge responsibility to tell their story truthfully.”

Hearing a story told in a language you don’t understand and then re-telling it to get the full, correct meaning has a thousand pitfalls, especially when dealing with a highly emotive subject such as the interwoven lives of a close-knit family. “I’ve been a journalist for 25 years and language is everything to me, it’s so nuanced. It’s absolutely critical that you represent people’s sentiments with exactly the right words.”

Credit: Reto Guntli

We were faced with interviews in French, Arabic, dilectical Arabic and Berber, plus broken English, and it’s really, really crucial that the way we represent the people we interviewed through the edit and through the subtitles is true to their words. Without a doubt that’s been the biggest challenge practically speaking, and in terms of making sure the right message for the film comes through.

“One of the benefits of having Zahra Aït Boumessaoud with us, who is a former EFA student, is that she speaks their language in a wider sense. She made people feel at ease. Zarah was translating in a basic sense, but we had a professional interpreter go through the transcripts, which was costly,

And when we do the final version we will do that again. We kept the costs down with a crew of three; myself, Kuba and our assistant, Memoona Naushahi, but we paid the girls to support us in making the film, which in itself has a positive economic and social impact. That’s the model of how we did this.”

“What was really important to me is that this was a very human story, about love, about the housemothers providing good parenting in the simple sense, but it’s really about the opposite of this whole idea that we have the right way of living or our sophisticated living is superior to this rural way of life. I think it’s a reminder that while these girls will definitely benefit from education, we in our world could learn how they live as families; there’s love, there’s support, they live as a community. For me one of the most poignant things I learned about Islam is that the girls would tell us, “In our culture if you learn something you want to share it, if you have a piece of bread and you are with your family you want to share it.”

That’s why education there is so powerful and valuable because within the families and the girls is the wish to want to share it, whereas we are much more individualistic in our world. It’s something we probably won’t get into the film but it’s absolutely my favourite story. Gita was saying that when she went at age eleven to work with a wealthy family, she said, “You know I went there and had seen that life on television and the ultimate goal was to have money and a nice house, and when I got to that family there was medicine everywhere, they had a full fridge but they never had meals together, would all just pass each and never spoke to each other. The environment felt poor. But you go back to her house and it’s mud walls and very basic but there’s love there in that room and you realise that’s the richness humanity should value.”

Note from NOW Founder – Alexa Poortier:

Juliet Kinsman produced Changing Worlds in the Atlas Mountains, a 20-minute documentary filmed in Morocco by Kuba Nowak in the spring of 2019.  Filmed primarily at the Education for All boarding houses in Asni and on location in Atlas villages and Marrakech, it is a universal story of hope, love and support as showcased by an inspiring NGO in rural Morocco which helps teenage girls access education.

Education for All, Morocco is founded by Mike McHugo.  He also founded Kasbah du Toubkal together with his brother Chris and Hajj Maurice, a unique Berber mountain resort and an extraordinary community-run 14 rooms lodge in the high Atlas which offers remote off-the-grid escapes and supports the local Berber community.  Kasbah du Toubkal is a member of the NOW Force for Good Alliance, an affiliation of extraordinary and caring places to stay that provides a sustainable travel experience and takes responsibility for their total impact on the community and the environment.

Education For All in Morocco supports Sustainable Development Goals 5 – Gender Equality.  It is another fundamental human right which is essential to achieve peaceful societies, with full human potential and sustainable development.   There are many ways to get involved and your efforts will make a huge difference.

Education is a human right. Enshrined in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it calls  for free and compulsory elementary education. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, goes further to stipulate that countries shall make higher education accessible to all.   Going beyond the rhetoric, both the opportunity and the right to education are never equal and girls are too often shortchanged in many parts of our world.

An educated woman educates the next generation.  Here’s 10 more reasons why female education is important:

1. Increased Literacy: Of the 163 million illiterate youth across the globe, nearly 63 percent are female. Offering all children education will prop up literacy rates, pushing forward development in struggling regions.

2. Human Trafficking: Women are most vulnerable to trafficking when they are undereducated and poor, according to the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. Through providing young girls with opportunities and fundamental skills, this billion-dollar industry can be significantly undermined.

3. Political Representation: Across the globe, women are underrepresented as voters and restricted from political involvement. The United Nations Women’s programmes on leadership and participation suggests that civic education, training and all around empowerment will ease this gap.

4. Thriving Babies: According to the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, children of educated mothers are twice as likely to survive past the age of five. Foreign aid for schoolhouses and curriculum development could greatly benefit the East African country of Burundi, where nearly 16,000 children die per year.

5. Safe Sex: A girl who completes primary school is three times less likely to contract HIV. With these statistics in mind, The World Bank calls education a “window of hope” in preventing the spread of AIDS among today’s children.

6. Later Marriage: As suggested by the United Nations Population Fund, in underdeveloped countries, one in every three girls is married before reaching the age of 18. In a region where a girl receives seven or more years of education, the wedding date is delayed by four years.

7. Smaller Families: Increased participation in school reduces fertility rates over time. In Mali, women with secondary education or higher have an average of three children. Counterparts with no education have an average of seven children.

8. Income Potential: Education also empowers a woman’s wallet through boosting her earning capabilities. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO, a single year of primary education has shown to increase a girl’s wages later in life by 20 percent.

9. Thriving GDP: Gross domestic product also soars when both girls and boys are being offered educational opportunities. When 10 percent more women attend school, GDP increases by three percent on average.

10. Poverty Reduction: When women are provided with equal rights and equal access to education, they go on to participate in business and economic activity. Increased earning power and income combat against current and future poverty through feeding, clothing and providing for entire families.

Sources: Borgenproject.org, PRB, U.N. Women, CFR, World Bank

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