Supporting Girls to Soar in Morocco

Maryam Montague’s organization Project Soar is providing teen girls in Morocco, Uganda, and Syria with the tools necessary to become leaders in their communities and beyond.  

Maryam Montague, Founder and Executive Director of Project Soar

Headquartered in Marrakech, Morocco; Also Serving Girls in Uganda and Syria 

Maryam Montague with a cohort of Project Soar Girls. Photo by Project Soar

Maryam Montague was raised in an Iranian and American household but was actually born in Egypt where her father worked as an international development expert. As a little girl, Maryam would accompany him on assignments in the summertime–a pastime that planted a seed of eagerness to one day find her own ways to give back. Her father was a fierce defender of women’s and girls’ rights and Maryam recalled, “I learned from him early on how tremendously important the fight for women’s rights is because they can so easily be taken away.” 

When Maryam grew up, she pursued a career in human rights with the goal of improving the political rights of women and girls around the world. But as Maryam focused on democracy, governance, and rights for women during an assignment in Morocco, she was struck by a glaring oversight in programming: the exclusion of teen girls. 

Maryam realized many specialists in her field intervened too late, waiting for girls to become women and missing the opportunity to offer them support to avoid early marriage and stay in school. “I saw this [age group] being left behind in concerning ways. They were not represented in women’s rights movements, and children’s rights usually pertain to children under five years old,”  Maryam explained. Additionally, girls and women lacked safe spaces outside school and the home that could positively contribute to their development.

In 2015, Maryam launched her organization “Project Soar” to pilot these safe spaces as a dedicated place for young women aged 13-18 to learn about themselves and understand the world around them. In the small village of Douar Laadam, 15 km outside of Marrakech, Morocco, Maryam launched the first Project Soar site with a dozen girls. Now, Project Soar has 53 sites across Morocco, Uganda, and Syria, widening horizons for thousands of girls in underserved communities.  

Project Soar is enabling each Soar girl to be a leader and changemaker. The Soar solution is executed through specialized workshops consisting of five modules enabling teen girls to better understand their Value, Voice, Body, Rights, and Path – the 5 Pillars of Empowerment. As a Soar girl progresses through each module, she gains confidence, leadership, and knowledge of human rights.  

The backbone of Project Soar is a structured, science-backed pedagogy with a holistic mind and body focus, harnessing the power of meditations and journaling. With the help of a network of local women or ‘empowerment facilitators’ trained to lead girls through the workshops, Soar girls achieve a new mindset and attitude about their prospects in life. By training local young women as facilitators, the Soar girls are able to evolve their ideas of what constitutes a leader, seeing young women be confident role models whilst also promoting co-creation. 

Changing Attitudes and Futures

Project Soar’s empowerment facilitators cultivate a sense of confidence, civic activism, and independence in teen girls which result in profound improvements in a girl’s life and future. The success of the Soar solution is proven through positive attitudinal shifts and educational outcomes, measured by program surveys of the beneficiaries. At orientation and after completion of the modules, identical surveys are administered with questions about decision making and agency, value and self-image, child marriage, gender equity, the importance of education, and more. Girls report how much they agree or disagree with statement prompts such as: “I am in control of shaping my future, whether this be my education, my career, my own family,” or “I do not have as much to offer the world as a boy.” 

Project Soar offers activities such as affirmations, journaling, public speaking activities, and negotiation training that are proven to increase girls’ sense of value and confidence to speak up for themselves.

Project Soar girls during an activity in Syria. Photo by Project Soar.

Project Soar data revealed a significant positive increase in decision-making skills and a decrease in the number of girls who think a family member has more say in their future than they do. Project Soar also enables girls to understand their right to equality, education, freedom from violence including harassment, and freedom from forced and/or early marriage. There was a 22% increase in girls strongly believing that sexual harassment is not their fault.  

Project Soar data also shows that improved decision-making skills, self-value, and self-image are highly effective in decreasing child marriage and promoting education. From impact data collected from 472 Soar girls across Morocco, Project Soar observed that in Morocco, less than 1% of Project Soar Girls marry underage compared to 14% of girls nationwide. While only 79% of girls in Moroccan schools complete the school year, 99.35% of Soar girls do. Only half of Moroccan girls pass the Baccalaureate whereas 88.75% of Soar girls pass. 

Meanwhile, in Uganda, not a single Soar girl has married underage compared to 40% of girls nationwide. 43% of girls in Uganda do not finish school but 100% of Soar girls stay in school.

According to research by UNICEF, when girls stay in school, their lifetime earnings dramatically increase, national growth rates rise, and child mortality rates fall. Overall, higher rates of girls in school contribute to more stable, resilient societies.  

Through their curriculum and programming, Project Soar is “scaling deep,” a form of impact that addresses and shifts dominant attitudes and mindsets about what girls can achieve and guides systems-level change across generations. The results of lower child marriage and dropout rates prove how consequential shifting attitudes and behaviors are in a society. 

Scaling Out: Project Soar in a Box

Maryam’s focus from the inception of Project Soar has been building a scalable model to reach as many girls as possible. Project Soar is scaling out, or reaching new geographies and more beneficiaries, through the packaging of its solution as “Project Soar in a Box.” This box, which in reality, is more of a duffle bag on wheels, is equipped with all of the materials needed for facilitators to launch a Project Soar site anywhere in the world: curricula, scripts, stationery, and exercise materials. Since 2017, Project Soar has sent 102 new Project Soar in a Box kits to new sites in Morocco, Uganda, and Syria, and refreshed 70 kits at existing sites enabling them to continue with a new cohort of girls with a new stock of supplies.

Beyond reaching new locations, Project Soar provides an adaptable solution that caters to a diverse range of teen girls’ needs, to reach more beneficiaries living with specific challenges in marginalized communities. In 2020, Project Soar launched “Teen Girls with Disabilities,” adapting the Soar curriculum to cater to the needs of teen girls with physical and mental disabilities. Within these new scaling events, built-in feedback loops glean the best strategies to further increase impact and inclusivity, ensuring the program meets the specific sensitivities needed of the beneficiaries. Additionally, Project Soar’s newest expansion into Northwest Syria showcases a program adaptation event to meet the needs of at-risk teen girls who are experiencing displacement.  

Project Soar is working with 3 Syrian CSOs to implement their adapted curriculum toolkit for Syrian internally displaced girls, called Girls Soar in Syria (GSS). Photo by Project Soar

Maryam managed to launch Project Soar onto the global stage, grabbing the attention of Michelle Obama who featured Soar Girls in her film “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World.” This movie tells the stories of how girls around the world overcome obstacles to receive an education and is a part of a larger, global effort to increase educational outcomes for this part of the population that is often left out. The former First Lady was so impressed with the work of Project Soar that she invited a cohort to visit the White House for the movie screening. Maryam said, “Michelle Obama featuring Project Soar in the We Will Rise film and our invitation to the White House gave real credibility to the work that we do.” 

Project Soar is not just about providing a space for teens, but fundamentally changing the way girls feel about themselves and their role in the world around them. These programs don’t just raise awareness of girls’ rights and issues, but they equip them with life skills and confidence to become changemakers and leaders of today and tomorrow.

As Maryam explained, “We see this crescendo-effect that is carefully thought through. Girls are having fun; they are not taking notes or studying, but they are building relationships and pillars of support mentally and socially that they will lean on as they transition into womanhood.”  

By Audrey Lodes