If you asked Mohamed Baaddi, a 27 year-old man from rural Morocco, what he did for a living, he would tell you he teaches mathematics to primary school children.
If you asked him what he lived for, he would say without any hesitation: educating girls.
Mohamed grew up in Amezri, an isolated village high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, a place where child marriage is common and children rarely complete primary school.
One of the lucky few, Mohamed went to university and became a teacher. Now living a few miles from where he grew up, he regularly returns home to raise awareness of child marriage and to challenge the village’s views on educating girls.
This summer, he joined Fondation YTTO, a Moroccan women’s rights organisation and Girls Not Brides member, on their annual campaign to end child marriage. Along with dozens of volunteers and local activists, Mohamed travelled from one village to another, knocking on doors to talk to families about the rights that women and girls are legally entitled to.
As the campaign reaches his home village, Mohamed tells us about his work and why he's so determined to end child marriage and see girls thrive.
How did you become an advocate against child marriage and for girls’ education?
I was lucky to continue my studies after primary school, but I had to leave my village and travel to a much bigger city to do so. What I saw was an entirely different world, a world where women and girls were educated and valued for their achievements.
It made me realise that the the roles assigned to [women in my own village] – wives, mothers – kept them from achieving their true potential as human beings. It didn’t feel normal.
Why do girls marry early here in Amezri?
In Amezri, girls have one and only destiny: marriage and motherhood. Underage marriage is not out of the ordinary; it is not a problem, just what people have done for ages. It also happens because girls do not get the chance to continue their education. If they are lucky, they may complete primary school but they rarely continue further.
The secondary school is far from the village and children must get there on foot. The boys sometimes make the journey but parents are usually too afraid for their daughters’ security to let them make the journey.
Fathers also tell me that, once their daughters reach a marriageable age, their job is over. If they find them a suitable husband, they have succeeded as a parent. If she stays at home, single, they have failed. She becomes a burden to them.
Why is girls’ education important to prevent child marriage?
An educated girl knows she has rights and she knows how to exercise them. Not only is she aware of social problems, she also has the voice to speak up against them. When it comes to her own marriage, she will be able to stand up for her choice to choose when and whom she marries.
Women and girls are not machines, just meant to sew or bear children. They deserve an education, the chance to be more.Mohamad Baddi
If we want to end child marriage, we must teach girls about their rights from an early age and enable them to take control of their lives.
Women and girls should not be confined to the home, the kitchen or the fields. They are not machines, just meant to sew or to bear children. They deserve an education, the chance to be more.
How does being a teacher play into your efforts to end child marriage?
Teaching is an opportunity to educate children about the benefits of education in general. Too many of the children I teach resign themselves to stop going to school after a few years, especially the girls.
That is why I share my story with them. I explain that I come from a rural village, isolated from the rest of the country, and from a family with few means but that it didn’t stop me from wanting to become a teacher and it shouldn’t stop them either.
I encourage them to be ambitious, to dream big. We have too many children who do not work, wait for marriage and expect little else.
Through the children, I hope to reach the parents with my message.
How do you talk parents out of marrying their daughters early?
When I advise fathers that their daughters should go to school, they often tell me, “Who do you think you are, telling me what to do with my daughter?” It is difficult to change people’s mentality. Child marriage hits close to home, to people’s personal lives.
I try to tell them, “She’s your daughter. Take a second to imagine who she could become if she pursued her education. What do you prefer: a daughter who’s a doctor, or a daughter who cannot read, write or speak her mind?”
Do you face a lot of resistance in your work?
Absolutely. If you mention girls’ education, you are the bearer of a “modern ideology”; some people will believe you are against religion or rural communities. They ask you, “Why do you want to change our mentality, our women and our girls?”
Women are neither with me nor against me. The ideas I try to spread are unacceptable to their husbands, even if themselves may see value in them. They stay in the middle, not daring to oppose or support me.
Another problem is that, if you are seen to challenge religion, you no longer belong to society in their eyes. Those who claim to follow religious teaching, their ideas do not match the Koran’s precepts. The problem is not Islam but the interpretation and how it is used.
Child marriage does not exist in my religion. There is one case. One case does not make the rule. Yes, the Prophet married a child but it’s the prophet, not us. His was a time that looks nothing like ours. This is the 21st century. Living conditions were completely different back then; as society evolves, we abandon practices we no longer deem acceptable.
In 2001, Amezri did not have electricity. What should we have done? Accept life without electricity or modernise our way of living when we had the chance?
You face adversity for wishing a better future for women and girls. What keeps you going?
Education is too important for me to give up. Boys and girls deserve the same chances in life yet there is a mentality that sees women and girls as secondary to society. I want to challenge this belief.
I have a project I hold dear. I would like to create an organisation to promote education for women and girls. If I continue this work on my own, no one will listen to me.
But if I convince other teachers to join me, our impact will be much greater! They will raise awareness within their circles, and the people within those circles will spread the word too. I want this message to reach as many people as possible.
Background: Child marriage in Morocco
Child marriage is illegal in Morocco, yet 16% of girls will marry before their eighteenth birthday and 3% will marry before they turn 15. Because many such marriages are not registered, it is thought that rates of child marriage could be higher.
Most of these marriages occur in remote rural areas where traditions and customary laws prevail, poverty is rampant and children have few prospects but marriage.
In the time it has taken to read this article 76 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds