Rabat, Morocco - Although the Moroccan government amended a law that forced 16-year-old Amina Filali to marry her rapist - and led to her suicide two years ago - human rights organisations say more legislation to protect women is urgently needed.
The Moroccan parliament unanimously voted last week to amend article 475 of the penal code on statutory rape, which allowed rapists to avoid prosecution by marrying their underage victims.
Some Moroccans believe that women who lose their virginity outside of marriage - no matter the circumstance - bring dishonour upon the family.
The amendment takes away a loophole that families of some rape victims in this deeply conservative country used to prevent shame falling on their family name by pressing their daughters to marry the attackers.
Two years ago Amina al-Filali, 16, committed suicide by eating rat poison after being forced by her family and a judge to marry a man who raped her at knifepoint. Her death caused an international uproar, and inspired a petition with more than 1 million signatures by social activist group Avaaz demanding the government abolish the law.
Rape must be the end of suffering for the victim, and the end of abuse by the rapist, and this has to be clearly stated in our laws.
Finally, the Islamist-led government heard the calls for change, say proponents.
"Congratulations to the Moroccan Parliament. May they bring in their wake many countries that still condone rape. Thoughts for #AminaFilali," tweeted Najat Vallaud Belkacem, the French minister of women's rights, also a native of Morocco.
'Micro first step'
But activists say there is still a long way to go. Many laws in the Moroccan penal code do not mandate heavy enough sentences for rapists, and the law still criminalises sex outside of marriage, which has made it extremely difficult for many rape victims to come forward, as they are often treated more like perpetrators than victims.
The United Nations reported in 2011 that about 60 percent of women suffered some form of recent violence, with 25 percent reporting they had been raped in their lifetime.
"I am happy that lawmakers started paying attention," said Zineb Belmkaddem, 29, an activist who lives in the capital Rabat. "However, the article being amended this way is but a micro first step towards protecting rape victims. Rape must be the end of suffering for the victim, and the end of abuse by the rapist, and this has to be clearly stated in our laws."
Saida Kouzzi, a founding partner at Mobilizing for Rights Associates, an non-governmental organisation based in Morocco, warned the battle to win more rights for women is far from over. The law should not only criminalise rape but also protect the victims of it, she said.
"Getting rid of one paragraph was a good start," said Kouzzi. "But the current penal code is mostly concerned with protecting the honour of families, rather than protecting the dignity and the bodies of women."
She added the country also needs to criminalise violence against women, and civil society must push for a prioritisation of addressing all kinds of abuse against women.
"We cannot generalise about the attitudes towards women, but if someone calls in the police to report domestic violence, chances are they won't intervene, mainly because they don't have enough resources to but also because it is an issue that isn't among their priorities," Kouzzi said.
|A protest against violence towards women [Reuters]
The justice ministry issued a statement [Ar] on Monday supporting the amendment of article 475 and promising more reforms and harsher punishment for rapists.
In 2004, the country reformed its family code after a push by Morocco's King Mohammed VI for more rights for women, a reform that was at the time highly contested by Islamist parties but applauded by the international community and Moroccan feminist organisations.
The revised code gave more rights to women in divorce and custody matters, raised the minimum age to marry from 15 to 18, restricted polygamy and removed the notion of "obedience" of women to their husbands in the law.
But conservative judges and little outreach among communities to educate citizens about their rights, has made the application of the new laws difficult. According to ministry of justice figures, in 90 percent of cases, judges have granted permission for minors to marry.
Many are asking for further reform of the family code by instituting a strict minimum age to marry, or by setting specific and strict guidelines when a dispensation is granted, while completely outlawing polygamy as they have in Tunisia.
The penal code needs to be completely overhauled. For every civil right in the constitution, there is a criminal law that [applies] to send you to jail.
One problem, some say, is the same judges who favour men against women are still slowly adjusting to the new laws. Observers also say these reforms do not mean much if the state doesn't guarantee a truly independent judiciary.
"The penal code needs to be completely overhauled," said Reda Oulamine, a Casablanca-based lawyer and founder of Right and Justice, a non-governmental organisation that promotes human rights in Morocco.
"For every civil right in the constitution, there is a criminal law that [applies] to send you to jail."
Oulamine said some of the necessary reforms include raising alimony and revising the inheritance law, which is still based on Islamic law and states that men get twice as much inheritance than women.
Still, the efforts of civil rights groups to reach out to people and the outrage that followed Filali's case appears to have had an impact on Moroccan society. Last week, according to local news reports [Ar], a family in Casablanca refused to force their daughter to marry the man who held her hostage for five days and raped her - instead they decided to file a police complaint.
But many agree the laws are difficult to implement when the prevailing mentality is one of favouring men.
"Polygamy is a practice that discriminates against women and should be completely abandoned," said Belmkaddem, the activist.
"Victims often fear breaking the silence because the risk of being disowned is unfortunately high. So educating and launching awareness programmes in schools should be a top priority as well."