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Reclaiming Lives

A teacher union in Morocco curbs the dropout rate—and fights child labor.

By Tim Walker

Afaf wipes her brow, claps the sand from her hands, and pulls down the mask that covers her nose and mouth.

It's about three in the afternoon, the hour many children are returning home from school, but Afaf, 14, sits in a metal foundry in the Old Medina section of Fez, Morocco.

Instead of being in a classroom reading and writing, Afaf spends 10 grueling hours a day sanding teapots and other brass ornaments that will be sold to eager tourists who walk through the marketplace only a few hundred feet away.

“I have never been to school. I have always worked," she says, smiling. Before she came to the metal foundry at age 10, Afaf worked similarly long hours as a “little maid," or petite bonne as they are called in Morocco—one of thousands of young girls between the ages of 7 and 15 (sometimes even younger) who serve as full-time housemaids for the city's affluent families.

“School is not that important. We all need to work to help support the family." Afaf looks down at the large worktable covered with sand and brass teapots. “Although I do get tired and it does get very warm in here." She shrugs, smiles again, replaces the mask over her face, and returns to her work.

Afaf doesn't miss school because she has never attended, and probably never will.

Sara Marbouh, also 14, knew school and loved it—the joy of learning, the friendship of her classmates, and the guidance and kindness of her teachers. That's why she was heartbroken the day her mother told her she would not return to school the next morning. Sara, then 12 years old, was picked up and taken to a house far away, where she worked as a live-in housemaid.

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“I was shocked," Sara recalls. “I cried and cried." Once a bright and outgoing student, Sara now faced a bleak but not uncommon fate shared by hundreds of thousands of other children in Morocco, a country that has one of the highest child labor rates in the Middle East and North Africa.

Amazingly, however, only seven weeks later, Sara was back in school, reunited with her classmates, teachers, and her favorite subjects—math, science, and English—and overjoyed at being where she knew she and other children belong.

Sara's rescue from child labor is a victory for Morocco's leading teachers union, the Syndicat Nationale de l'Enseignement (SNE), which collaborated with international partners to design and implement an extraordinary local initiative to curb the dropout rate in five of Fez's most disadvantaged schools.

 The program taps into the expertise and organization of the union and the commitment of educators to promote education as an antidote to the economic and cultural factors that support the cycle of global poverty and child labor.

“Educators around the world have a duty to fight child labor," says Abdelaziz Mountassir, vice-president of SNE. “Yes, we fight for the rights of educators, but also we want to mobilize them to fight for the human rights for all children. Education is a human right."

Undervaluing education, even at the expense of children's rights, is prevalent in many developing nations, where citizens are still accustomed to living in “survival mode." NEA strongly believes that a commitment to quality education for every child is essential to dismantle the economic pillars of child labor.

“Poverty, education, and child labor are inextricably linked," says Jan Eastman, deputy general secretary of Education International. “While a root cause is poverty, the way out is through education."

With a membership that spans more than 170 nations, Education International (EI), which NEA helped found in 1993, is the largest federation of trade unions worldwide. In addition to advocating for the rights of educators everywhere, EI promotes education as a key weapon in the fight against social and economic inequality. The scourge of child labor is a momentous obstacle, so EI has been rallying teacher unions and its global partners to collaborate on ways to improve access to education around the world.

According to the U.N.'s International Labour Organisation, more than 165 million child laborers are scattered across the globe. From construction sites in Afghanistan to factories in Albania to farms in rural Morocco to domestic workers in El Salvador, children between the ages of 6 and 14 work long hours in grim, often dangerous conditions intolerable for even the fittest adults. Sadly, millions of these children are exposed not only to exploitation in the labor market, but also are vulnerable to slavery, child trafficking, and prostitution.

In Morocco, child labor is concentrated in the agricultural sector in the countryside, but in urban areas such as Fez and Marrakech, the crafts industry—a major attraction for foreign tourists—is highly dependent on the work of young children. The streets in the crowded Old Medina marketplace are lined with children as young as 6 or 7, kneeling all day carving shoes, carrying rolled-up carpets twice their size on their shoulders, or using all their strength to polish brass plates.

Common economic and social factors fuel child labor rates across regions, including entrenched poverty, the absence of legal protections, and a cultural acceptance of child labor. The benefits of education can seem vague and remote for families struggling to put food on the table.

“My family depends on me," Karim explains, his face blackened by soot and grease. Now 18, he has worked in the same metal foundry as Afaf since he was 11. “What can I do? What will my mother do if I go to school?" he asks.

Sara's mother, Malika Hinda, candidly admits she did not see the value of education for her five children. She was ashamed at sending Sara away to work, but she thought it was necessary to help sustain her family. Hinda, who never attended school herself, had watched her eldest son finish school, only to spend days looking for work that never came.

“I did not want that for Sara," she explains.

eadmaster Mohammed Glioui had watched helplessly as many of his students quit school to go to work; the dropout rate had been at an alarming level for years. When Sara, a bright and popular student, left school in 2005, Glioui and his staff had the resources to finally do something about it.

The previous year, SNE launched its initiative aimed at changing the economic and cultural forces that drive kids out of school and into work. Glioui and his teachers are part of the dedicated team of educators who are on the ground in Fez tackling the dropout problem in five of the city's poorest schools.

The program deploys short- and long-term solutions to curb the number of dropouts by calling attention to the rights of children and “rebranding" education for both students and their parents. Although children such as Sara have been brought back into school from work, the primary objective is to prevent dropouts from occurring in the first place.

Supported by three Dutch organizations, including the teachers' union AOb, the program funds basic structural and pedagogical improvements in each of the five schools. The money has provided a cleaner, more attractive learning environment in each school. New libraries now house small but vital collections of books, and an infusion of arts and music programs has stimulated student interest.

The program also helps parents pay for such basic necessities as book bags, school supplies, uniforms, even glasses for students who can't see the blackboard. Concurrently, the union also encourages parents to look beyond the measly wages their children could earn now and understand that only education can break the cycle of poverty that has gripped their families for generations.

When Sara dropped out, headmaster Glioui and his staff held a series of conversations with Sara's parents to persuade them to allow their daughter to return to school. Relieved that the union would bear many of the school fees and convinced that Sara's education was indeed valuable, her parents eventually granted her return.

Another critical component of the program is teacher professional development. Many educators, despite being devoted classroom professionals, did not view education as a component of children's rights. Thanks to training on how they could be stronger advocates for students' legal protections, teachers at the five schools have become, in essence, child labor “monitors."

“The program has done an outstanding job in educating teachers on the severity of the problem," says Mountassir. “And they have embraced their new role. In addition to teaching, they have become human rights activists for their children as well."

Rabia Mouyssi, a teacher at the Ouinat Alhajaj School, says the program has strengthened the bonds between teacher and student.

“We always have a sense of solidarity between us," she explains. “I'm their teacher, but also their mother, their friend, everything. They are like my own children."

After four years, the results have been extraordinary. In 2003, one year before the program began, 1,381 young students at the targeted five schools dropped out. By 2005, that number had fallen to 212, 116 in the second year, and 121 in the third year.

Originally budgeted for four years, SNE's program has now received funding to potentially expand beyond Fez to other struggling cities. Boughour Hussein, headmaster of the 18 November School says the program's success cannot be overstated. “Leaving school can be like a death sentence," he says. “It is as if we are giving [these children] a new life."

ow a student at Abbas Benani School, Sara understands how fortunate she and the other children touched by SNE's dropout program have been. Back in school for two years now, she still recalls the cruelty and humiliation she experienced at the hands of her former employers. She speaks with a hint of bitterness when she recalls her ordeal as a live-in servant: “I was deprived of basic human kindness. There is a huge difference between the cruelty of my employers and the kindness of my teachers. I can't describe the joy at being back at school."

Sara's mother shares her happiness and is convinced that education is a worthwhile pursuit for her daughter. Without it, she says, girls cannot provide for themselves—and besides, in today's world, an educated young woman will have an easier time finding a husband.

Sara has other plans.

“I want to study hard because I want to be a pediatrician," she says. “I want to help take care of the next generation."

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Child Labor in Morocco

Child Labor in Morocco

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