Working for women in Morocco

Imane Lahlou Skalli has found MPP skills are in demand from Cairo to Casablanca.

A revolutionary wave rolled across the Arab world in 2011. The youth of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria clamoured for change in demonstrations, where they faced the daily threat of violent reprisals. Imane Lahlou Skalli, safely ensconced at the Hertie School in Berlin in the first year of her Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree, knew what she had to do.

“I thought – this is the moment, this is the time for me to go,” Imane says. “It was either Tunisia or Egypt.”

She went to Cairo. Growing up in Morocco, her main contact with Egypt had been its influential popular culture – she knew the movie stars and pop singers, but little about the country’s politics and institutions. “I wanted to understand what was happening on the streets from the perspective of the people there,” she says.

With the help of the Hertie School’s careers department, she secured a position in Cairo on a project run by the German development agency GIZ, and took a Professional Year after the first year of her master’s degree. The Hertie School allows students to take 9-15 months off between their first and second years to gain professional experience.

Imane arrived in Cairo in August 2011 and found an apartment in the Dokki neighbourhood in the south-west of the city, sharing with two American women. The mood on the streets was sometimes ugly. “It was very tense, security-wise,” she says.  “Once or twice, we heard shots a street or two streets away.”

Her project was focussed on so-called “informal” areas – unregistered slums – and aimed at engaging youth in politics and civic institutions. “It was very topical,” she says. “I was working with young people from the areas where the revolution started. The aim was to give them the tools to conduct a dialogue with the authorities, and also to help them understand their rights and their obligations towards their community.”

The GIZ worked with about 50 young people in four governorates or regions in Cairo. “The hardest thing was to convince the local governors of the importance of opening a dialogue,” she says. “They were worried we would create problems for them. We had to convince them it would be a win-win situation, rather than adding new demands to their to-do list.” Another challenge was to make sure there were enough girls represented, she says. Some of the boys refused to mix with girls at meetings, but they were informed they had no choice if they wanted to take part. By the end, they had all grown comfortable with working together, she says.

After a year in Cairo, Imane left for Paris where she completed the second year of the Hertie School’s dual MPP degree programme with the Institut d’Études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), in 2013. A freshly-minted graduate, she returned to Morocco, unsure about how she would readjust to her home city of Casablanca after nearly 10 years living abroad. “I prepared myself for a reverse culture shock,” she says.

But within three weeks, she had sealed a contract with the GIZ as a consultant. She moved to a staff job soon after and since 2016, Imane has managed the Moroccan office of a regional MENA programme called EconoWin, which aims to improve the status and employment conditions of women in the workforce and to integrate them into the economy. 

Imane with fellow graduates at the 2017 Alumni Reunion in Berlin.

“Imane’s experience helped her focus her goals 'into something more practical, into the ability to work directly with people and work with them on issues that matter to them, but also on issues that matter to the economy and society.'”

When she was younger, Imane says she had the “wild dream to change the entire educational system in Morocco.” After her studies and her experience at the Hertie School, as well as her work in development, this goal became more focussed – remodelled “into something more practical, into the ability to work directly with people and work with them on issues that matter to them, but also on issues that matter to the economy and society.”

The obstacles faced by women in employment in Morocco are “too many to list,” she says. Many girls leave school as young as 12 in rural areas. Those who work in manufacturing can suffer abysmal conditions while earning minimum wage. But even at the upper end of the education scale, only one third of Moroccan female graduates work. Women in all strata of society often stop working when they marry or have children – sometimes because their husbands insist that their place is in the home; sometimes because there is no alternative childcare.

Moroccan authorities welcome EconoWin’s work and understand that improving women’s access to the labour market benefits the economy, Imane says. “The response we usually get is ‘we know that we need to “do gender” but we don’t know how,’” she says.

EconoWin works with companies and organisations to encourage HR policies designed to recruit, retain and promote more women into leadership positions. Another aspect of its work is to change perceptions and dismantle stereotypes about women who work, through an initiative called “Ana Hunna,” or “I am here.” This began as a media and film campaign intended to provoke discussion in schools and among adults, and is growing to include new types of art forms and awareness methods.

So what is next for Imane? Her contract at EconoWin runs until 2019. “I intend to stay, because there is a lot to do and I am very passionate about it,” she says. “I think it is very important. Not everyone does, and it is part of the challenge to convince people of the importance of women’s work.”


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