Giving Morocco's ‘little maids’ a second chance

We meet the NGO helping Morocco's girls get back into education and a better life

Jumbled together on a rocky hillside, the browned and rusted concrete brick houses of Chichaoua may not be pretty, but they are home – and a sanctuary. A young girl with bright eyes and a shy smile nods hesitantly. Just being with her family is something she thought she might never enjoy again.

Soukaina is far now from Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, where she worked 15 hours a day, was beaten regularly and lived in the corner of a kitchen. Hers is a modern-day Cinderella story, yet Soukaina’s rescuer was no prince, but a local organisation offering a second chance – at education and life.

“I’m very happy to be living with my family,” says Soukaina, 16. “I was overjoyed when the association found and freed me. Now I’m back with my family, where I feel safe.”

Her young shoulders have carried a heavy burden. At ten years old, Soukaina became one of Morocco’s ‘little maids’ – girls as young as eight to 15 years old, sold as domestic servants, to work in homes in Morocco’s cities. The Institution Nationale de Solidarité avec les Femmes en Détresse (INSAF), a Casablanca-based NGO, estimates there are 60,000 to 80,000 girls like Soukaina across the country.

The arid mountain-scape of Chichaoua province, in the Marrakesh-Tensift-El Haouz region, is some 300km from the bustling economic hub that is Casablanca. “Exploitation in domestic work typically affects young girls from marginalised rural and peri-urban areas,” says Bouchra Ghiati, president of INSAF, whose programme to help little maids launched in Chichaoua in 2005.

Domestic chores, in particular, are seen as a girl’s job. Poverty, coupled with low levels of schooling, is the main push factor.

After just three years of education, Soukaina dropped out of school, to help around the house, when her father became chronically ill. When he died, her mother had to send her out to work. “The poverty level [in Chichaoua] is 29 per cent, compared to 19 per cent in the rest of the region and 14 per cent nationally,” explains Omar Saadoun, INSAF’s little maids programme manager.

High illiteracy rates among the families are common too, affecting 94 per cent of the mothers INSAF works with, says Ghiati. Access to education is extremely limited in such rural areas. Chichaoua’s unpaved mountain roads often become muddy and impassable in winter, making parents even less willing to let their young daughters walk to school, which will often be some distance away.

Little maids find themselves working and living in conditions that far exceed their age and physical and psychological abilities, says Ghiati. More than a third are eight to 12 years old, or primary school age, according to INSAF. Working in urban, middle-class and wealthy homes, the girls do domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning and sometimes childcare – all for a wage of between MAD300 and MAD500 ($36-$60) a month, if they are paid at all. Brokers, or samsars, get MAD500 to MAD1,000 ($60-$120) for each girl they place.

Apart from missing out on an education, behind closed doors, little maids can be the victims of malnutrition and abuse, too, warns Ghiati. Extended in 2011 to two neighbouring provinces – El Kelaa des Sraghna and El Haouz – INSAF’s programme lifts little maids out of domestic work, raises awareness among poor communities of the problem, and advocates for their rights.

Getting the girls back into education is a priority. INSAF finds and returns little maids to their families, and reintegrates them into the school system up to the age of 16 – the legal school leaving age – support that usually lasts between four to six years.

“All the girls benefit from a MAD300 ($36) scholarship given monthly to their parents,” says Saadoun. “It offers a practical and efficient alternative to lighten the financial burden and help poor families educate their children.”

INSAF also helps with school fees, school materials and winter clothes. The programme’s total cost to support one girl for a year is $1,000.

Crucially, INSAF works with each family and local community to ensure the girls stay in school and out of work, he adds. “After returning to my family, I went back into the third year of primary school,” recounts Soukaina. “If INSAF hadn’t helped me, my life would have probably turned out as it has for other girls in the same situation. Some die from the mistreatment inflicted on them by their employers.”

“So far, we have helped nearly 400 girls in Chichaoua and El Kelaa leave domestic work,” says Ghiati. “Four of them have gone on to Marrakesh University with two more going [in the] next academic year.” In 2013, 34 girls were still in college, thanks to INSAF’s support, and seven have passed their baccalauréat, or high school diploma.

What is more, the trade of little maids has been wiped out from 19 communes, many of them in Chichaoua, thanks to INSAF’s advocacy initiative.

“We believe this action allows us to eradicate the practice, and in a sustainable way,” says Ghiati. None of INSAF’s former little maids have gone back to being domestic servants, although the programme says nearly 10 per cent of the girls leave due to what it calls the “scourge” of early marriage, at 15 or 16 years old.

Still, the lack of education infrastructure in these poor, rural areas holds back the programme’s ability to achieve greater results, notes Ghiati. Distant schools – particularly at secondary and college level – and poorly maintained school buildings, mean parents lose confidence in the education system.

The scale of the problem may appear as daunting as Chichaoua’s hills. But INSAF hopes to replicate its model in the other provinces of the Marrakesh-Tensift-El Haouz region, making the most of opportunities to raise awareness in local communities, to keep girls out of domestic servitude. In the long-term, INSAF hopes to work with the Moroccan government to extend the programme to other impoverished regions.

For now, the chance to return to the safety and care of her family has given Soukaina a new lease of life.

“Now I am in college,” she says proudly. “I hope to do well in my studies. My dream is to become a physical education teacher.” It is a dream worthy of a modern fairytale.