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This Group Is Using Sports to Empower Teenage Girls In Morocco

Girls will be girls, no matter their nationality or religion. I was reminded of this during my first visit to Douar Ladaam, a village located 20 minutes outside of Marrakech. Maryam Montague, the founder of Project Soar, a nonprofit that empowers girls through sports, health education, and academic support, had invited me to speak about my journalism career and what it's like to travel the world as a woman. The dozen or so girls shyly greeted me with the customary three kisses on my cheeks. They giggled. They were self-conscious. And they were more interested to know whether I had a boyfriend than to hear about my intrepid career.

The girls, ranging in age from 12 to 16, told me they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, police officers, and teachers when they grew up. And because of Project Soar, those dreams could become realities.

Montague, an American with a background in human rights work, moved to Morocco in 2001 and quickly noticed the gender disparities in her community. "I'd drive through the Douar Ladaam and see boys playing soccer and boys walking to school. Where were all the girls?" she wondered. Montague had recently given birth to a daughter and couldn't help but think of her when she caught rare glimpses of the village girls.

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In Morocco, 79 percent of boys in urban areas attend school compared to 26 percent of girls in rural areas. In some areas, up to 83 percent of women are married before the age of 18. "Girls weren't getting a chance at a future," she says. "Girls are extremely vulnerable to a cycle where they drop out of school, marry early, and become a young mother."

In 2013, Montague and her husband, Chris Redecke, set up Project Soar with the hopes of breaking that cycle by keeping girls in school and providing them with options for their futures. Sports were a core component of the program. "My philosophy with my own two kids was that if they did sports they'd be fearless," says Montague. "In adolescence, we feel so awkward in our own skin and sports are a way to deeply connect with your body. The physical activity helps combat anxiety, depression, and stress, and the camaraderie builds teamwork and leadership."

I was born in post Title IX America, where girls were encouraged to play sports and athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Serena Williams showed us that strong is beautiful, so it's easy to forget this isn't the norm in most of the world. Traditionally, women have been excluded from sports in Morocco. I'll never forget the first time I went running in Marrakech—I was hissed at and spit on by a man. It was a jarring eye-opener to the difference in cultures. Project Soar is setting out to even the playing field.

This September, four years after my first trip, I returned to join the Project Soar Running Club on a training run ahead of their first 5K. Those girls were now elbowing each other playfully on the basketball court. They seemed to exude a new confidence, running over to high-five me. A donor had sent sneakers, and the girls—most of whom run in sandals or worn out Keds—lined up excitedly to receive their new kicks.

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Montague's 16-year-old daughter, Skylar, serves as coach. She led us through a series of stretches before we set off on a warm-up run along the dirt road through the village. "I want these girls to see every open road as an invitation to run," Skylar told me. About two dozen girls and one mom showed up for the workout. One of the older girls blared Pink through her phone and the others sang along as they ran.

When Montague launched the running club three years ago, her hope was that the community would see the girls running through the village and it would change the perception of what women can and can't do. The thumbs-up we received from men passing on motorbikes felt like proof that a shift in consciousness is underway.

Skylar lined us up for timed 100-meter sprints. Meryem Britizza, a long-legged 16-year-old, was lengths ahead of her group. Only girls who stay in school can participate in Project Soar and that commitment is an incentive for girls like Meryem, who struggle academically but excel athletically. Public schools don't offer sports and the run club has given Meryem, who dreams of being a pro athlete or coach, a place to hone her talents. The fastest girl in Project Soar, she effortlessly clocks an eight-minute-mile, and Montague hopes to help her get an athletic scholarship.

This year, Montague's 18-year-old son, Tristan, began coaching the Project Soar Soccer Club, which has been hugely popular. Fatima Zahara Satour, 14, is one of the smallest but mightiest players and has been the club's leading goal scorer. "I've always liked soccer. I watch it on the TV but it's usually just boys who are playing," she said. "It's been so fun to be part of a team and the girls picked me as team captain which feels good." Jasmine Boucetta, 14, is always the first one to arrive at practice and the last to leave. "In my village, the boys would never let us use the field, but now it's our turn to play," she says.

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Project Soar currently has 87 girls from nine different villages on the outskirts of Marrakech registered at their headquarters. These girls, in grades eight through 12, have committed to attending five-plus hours per week of empowerment workshops and academic support classes in French, Arabic, physics, math, and science. Douar Ladaam is a conservative village and Montague says getting support from the parents has been key to the program's success, so much so that the village moms have asked Montague to develop a mom fitness group so they can, "lose their bellies, but keep their curves."

To date, Project Soar has worked with more than 400 Moroccan girls, providing 1,000 hours of after-school programming and support with the help of nearly 30 facilitators and 300-plus volunteers. At the end of November, there were 28 sites across Morocco implementing the Project Soar program, which was featured in the 2016 Michelle Obama documentary We Will Rise.

The 50-lesson curriculum is divided into five modules based on what Montague describes as Pillars of Empowerment. "These pillars embody our belief that every girl should know their value, voice, body, rights, and path," she explains. "It's a big curriculum but empowerment doesn't happen overnight." Each lesson is 90 minutes to two hours long. A workshop in the voice module includes lessons in conflict resolution; the path module works on goal setting. The body module might discuss puberty and how to manage menstruation. One in 10 girls in Africa skip school during their period and Project Soar is a pilot partner in the Muslim world for Be Girl, a program that provides girls with innovative period kids.

The entire curriculum can be completed in one year and Montague is working to create leadership camps for its graduates. The goal is to form Empowered Girls Clubs that will act like an alumni network of ongoing support. Montague dreams big and future plans include Project Soar TV, an online girls' empowerment channel where facilitators can log on and access the Project Soar curriculum and share success stories. She also hopes to start pilot programs in five new countries in the next year.

"People ask me, why focus on adolescent girls?" says Montague. "Empowered girls lead to empowered women, who lead to uplifting families and communities, creating a more equal and prospering nation. We view our role as guides and the girls are the heroes. This is their story. We're the vehicle for these girls to have the brightest, most productive futures possible."

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