Beyond the law: Protecting Morocco’s women

Significant strides have been made to protect women in Morocco against violence, but more needs to be done.

Amina Filali's suicide prompted public anger and protests over unfair legislation on violence against women in Morocco [AFP/Getty Images]

At a conference[Fr] on gender violence held in Rabat, Morocco in late January, UN Special Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo commended the country on its recently introduced draft bill protecting women against violence. The Moroccan government paid attention to the issue following a 2006 United Nations study showed the extent to which violence prevented women from fulfilling their potential, restricted economic growth and undermined development.

Given the exigent consequences of violence against women on the economic welfare of communities, it became one of Morocco’s pressing obligations to seriously address the issue. However, despite the advances Moroccan legislation made to improve women’s rights, they remained hindered by several obstacles. 

Many are aware of the grim story of 16-year-old Amina Filali‘s forced marriage to her alleged rapist and subsequent suicide that threw Morocco’s Article 475 into international headlines. The article protects a rapist from prosecution if he married his victim. Following efforts by grassroots activists, and an Avaaz petition to repeal it, the article reemerged into the spotlight this month when it was repealed by the country’s parliament.

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Though the abrogation is a positive step forward, yet Article 475 is only the tip of the iceberg. Amina’s fate, along with a number of complex issues afflicting Morocco including cracks in the justice system, gaping socioeconomic inequalities, and a need to comply with international standards, is one that can be prevented from haunting others.

A legal culture of impunity

The last few weeks in Morocco have seen heightening efforts by civil society and media campaigners to shed more light on gender violence in the country, a society in which both de facto and de jure shortcomings in women’s rights exist. Coupled with a deeply entrenched culture of impunity – especially with issues concerning honour – the country’s legal system suffers from bureaucratic weaknesses that stall investigation and implementation. Moreover, female victims of violence are often presumed to be accomplices and questions of consent overshadow the harm they’ve incurred.

Alleged rapists often receive the benefit of mediation with the blessings of legal aides, police and religious figures without facing prosecution. In order for women to feel protected against violence, a culture of zero tolerance for rape must be enforced.

Female victims of violence in Morocco need to feel that they can trust the system to protect their rights and bring them justice without having – oftentimes-  to resort to extreme “solutions”. Their rehabilitation and safety must be emphasised as much as their honour has been.

Another notable weakness of the ability of the Moroccan legal system to protect victims is rooted in court delays, a feature typical of the country’s bureaucracy. There are multiple causes of delay including prolonged hearings; insufficient human and financial resources in courtrooms; mismanagement and disorganisation of court resources and caseload; inefficient legal procedures and court processes; and party delays.

Numerous legislative and administrative initiatives have been undertaken over the years to address these issues. And while many have been successful in their specific aims, the issue continues to be flagrant. An efficient and effective court system is crucial to the administration of justice to protect the rights of female victims of violence.

Disparities in resource access

There are several women’s rights groups and civil society actors in Morocco who work freely to promote gender equality and equal access to justice in the country. While their efforts have gained momentum in recent years, they are often challenged by a conservative culture  – especially in underprivileged areas such as Amina’s village in the outskirts of Larache. In these places, there is little to no information on civil society groups and the services they provide.

Furthermore, few have conducted research on the human, material and financial resources of the civil society organisations working with rural women. As Moroccan Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development Bassima Hakkaoui has repeatedly said[Fr], more resources and support must be allocated to women’s shelters. This falls under the need for greater coordination between the government and local actors to accurately target and fulfil the needs of these women.

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Many rural areas lack basic infrastructure such as roads, which prevent civil society organisations usually based in major urban centers such as Rabat or Casablanca, to exert the same levels of influence in rural areas as they can in urban areas. Something as simple as a road can make the difference between whether a wronged woman in a village can obtain access to justice or not.

Many women, including Amina, who had to make trips from Larache to Tangier to attend court hearings, do not have physical access to legal aid or the resources of non-profit organisations. Many more are unaware or misinformed about their legal rights, and many lawyers refuse to take on pro-bono cases or lower their service rates for victims in rural areas. All women who have been subject to violence must have access to a legal counsel – justice should not have a price tag.

Compliance with international standards

It is not entirely true to say that progress has not been made on improving women’s rights in Morocco. Positive steps have been taken to amend the family law (the Moudawana). In urban areas these amendments have created a system for effectively dealing with the increased numbers of women filing domestic violence complaints within the court system. Article 336 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which previously only allowed women to take civil action against their husbands with prior authorisation from the court was also changed, now granting women equal access to the legal system.

In 2003, ammendements were made to the penal code to allow for heavier penalties on a spouse who inflicts harm upon the other spouse. Moreover, health care workers are now authorised to waive professional confidentiality agreements in cases of gender-based violence and to report such incidents to the appropriate authorities.

Morocco has also taken unprecedented steps in the country’s history to help eradicate discrimination against women and to improve gender equality by ratifying international instruments of human rights. The country is party to several international rights agreements including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

These are all encouraging steps forward in Morocco’s path to protecting women against violence and to preserving their rights. However, in order for their implementation to be effective, they need to be enforced in tandem with national legislation. By ratifying these international instruments, Morocco has committed to preventing discrimination against women and to assuring gender parity with regards to human rights. However, despite these international commitments, shortcomings in the status of women’s legal rights in Morocco still prevail.

A common discrepancy between implementation and international commitments, for example, is with the minimum age for marriage and Article 2 of the CEDAW which urges state parties to refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions conform to this obligation.

Though Moroccan law sets the minimum age for marriage at 18 for both males and females, judges often waive this requirement at their own discretion, allowing female minors to get married. The laws are bent because culturally speaking, girls tend to marry far older men and are often married when they are under 18. This does not absolve Morocco of its responsibility to the stipulations of CEDAW and the need to comply with international standards.

Today, the advances Morocco has achieved since the millennium have contributed largely to improving many human development indicators, especially for women. The journey to protect Morocco’s women is on the right track, but it is far from over. It remains one of the many examples of how societies in the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly grappling with balancing tradition and the human imperative of making society  more just for women.

Leila Hanafi is a Moroccan-American international lawyer, and policy expert from Georgetown University, George Washington University, and American University, Washington DC, USA. Ms. Hanafi is the founder and chief lawyer at the international law firm and think-thank ARPA, the Alliance for Rule of Law Promotion & Alternative Dispute Resolution, in Washington DC, USA.

Sarah Alaoui is an independent writer currently based in Washington D.C. Her work focuses primarily on North Africa.