Why Domestic Violence Still Plagues Morocco

A protester is pictured through a Moroccan national flag in March 2014. Reuters

The Moroccan woman was 21 when she first laid eyes on the man who would become her husband. She saw the handsome 24-year-old in a photograph presented by his parents. That was three years ago, when she was still a student. Within a year, S.S., who did not want her name used, had dropped out of her university classes, forced by her father to marry the man. Shortly after the wedding, S.S. says the beatings and rapes began.

"The whole time I just thought about killing myself," she says. "There is no law that will help me sue my husband for the things that he did. So he always gets away with it."

Morocco is hailed as one of the most progressive Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Yet despite amendments made to the Family Code in 2004 that increased women's rights, domestic violence is still not a crime.

A bill addressing violence against women [VAW] in Morocco had been in limbo for more than 10 years when, on March 17, lawmakers finally took up the issue and passed the bill. But there are detractors, including some unexpected ones: Nongovernmental organizations that have long lobbied for legislation to protect women opposed the bill, saying it fails to address the urgent needs of Moroccan women.

"Honestly," says Stephanie Willman Bordat, a founding partner at Mobilising for Rights Associates, "[after] over 10 years of human and material resources invested in this effort by different international, governmental and NGO actors, I don't know how much money spent, how many conferences, how many roundtables, how many training workshops, this draft law does not…respond to the voiced needs of women victims of violence in Morocco." The revised legislation, she says, simply fails "to rise to the level of all of this investment."

Critics say that is because the new bill merely increases penalties for existing criminal offenses and incorporates a Protection Order that can be issued only by police officers, whom most women don't feel comfortable approaching. Nor does it criminalize instances of marital rape or protect victims from their attackers until the investigation phase is complete. It neglects to provide procedural guidelines or give clearly specified powers to police, judges and lawyers investigating and prosecuting claims. And, just as pressing, it fails to provide services such as health care and housing to female victims who find themselves with no safe haven.

"As international organizations, we're in a place where we can really show up Morocco for its failure to do this in the international arena," says Rothna Begum, women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa region at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch published a letter to the government of Morocco in February demanding domestic violence law reforms following an investigation of conditions faced by women victims of violence in the region. In a separate report, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights cited a recommendation "that the [Moroccan] State party adopt a comprehensive law on violence against women that conforms to the relevant international standards and to ensure that it is implemented, with a view to eliminating all forms of violence against women, including marital rape."

Despite these pressures, Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid, in office since 2011, was a staunch opponent to any further reforms.

"I do not see how intimate acts between men and women that cannot be defined or proven can be penalized," he recently told the French news portal Mediapart. "Violence is already penalized in the current law. If a woman does not accept the desire of her husband, it's easier for her to divorce than to file a complaint to the police. A woman should accept her husband or leave."

According to a 2011 study (the first and only one of its kind) conducted by the state's statistic agency, the High Commission for Planning, more than 6 out of 10 women in Morocco from the ages of 18 to 64 were victims of some form of violence in the previous year alone. Fifty-five percent of those said these acts occurred at the hands of their husbands. The same study revealed that only 3 percent of these women ever reported the abuse to authorities.

"A lot of women still opt to get hit by their husbands because they have nowhere to go and would lack financial support. And their kids—they have to think about them," says Meryam Hilal, 22, social assistant at the Chaml Center women's shelter in Kenitra, Morocco.

M.H., 37, who also asked that her name not be used, says her husband gave her a drug that induced a miscarriage. She says he beat her and threatened to kill her if she told anyone about it.

"I believe all women get beaten by their husbands," M.H. says in a low tone, showing little emotion. "I am no exception. It's a normal thing."

M.H. says her husband beat her with metal scaffolding, leaving cuts and bruises on her face and legs. She presented her case to the police and other officials, but she says the authorities turned her away, saying there was nothing they could do. Still married, M.H. says she now has few options because she is illiterate and has no way of supporting herself if she ends up alone.

"I want to live my life like anyone else," she says, her eyes welling up with tears. "I feel my right to live was deprived from me. I feel hopeless. I feel lost."

Serious and sustained discussions on the issue of violence against women in Morocco began in 2006, with the intent to craft a new law by 2012. But the government missed its own deadline. In 2013 the government promised to create a committee to refine the law, but there's no evidence a committee has been meeting or even exists.

"They've had [more than] two years now, when they could have been making the effort to make a committee that consults women's rights groups. But their failure to do that suggests that there's a lack of political will to really have strong [VAW] legislation," says Begum of Human Rights Watch.

Bordat says the new bill passed by lawmakers is inadequate. Her group and partner NGOs drafted what they considered to be a more complete bill and have been actively lobbying ministers and other members of government to replace the government's version with their own.

"There's a lot of public relations campaigning going on, on behalf of the government," says Bordat. "That's giving the impression that stuff's getting done when it's really in the beginning stages."

Worldwide, most legislative changes to protect women from domestic violence began only in the past few decades. The United States passed its Violence Against Women Act in 1994. In the MENA region, Algeria passed a VAW law in 2015, while Tunisia is still fighting over the legislation, having built its first women's shelter a few years ago. Libya and other countries in the region are reportedly without VAW laws.

Many see Morocco as influential in the region. Activists look to it for leadership and credit the government with the ability to promote women's rights beyond its own borders. That, however, remains an open question, particularly in view of recent crackdowns on human rights organizations.

"What most people don't know is [that Morocco is] becoming a closed country," says Begum. She reports that researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been warned they are no longer welcome in the country.

Part of the shift may be attributed to the conservative Justice and Development Party, Morocco's ruling party, which has been resistant to passing the law. Some Moroccans cite the Koran when discussing domestic violence. Abdessamad Dialmy, a professor at the University Mohammed V in Rabat, says a certain interpretation of one passage gives a man permission to beat his wife if she is rebellious or disobeys the laws of Allah. But a beating for that reason should not "leave any visible trace," he adds.

A.F., 21, also did not want her name to be used, because she has experienced domestic violence and is now divorced, which carries a stigma in Morocco. Born and raised in a small village outside of Ouazzane, in northern Morocco, she was 16 when her marriage to a 25-year-old family friend was arranged. A.F. says her husband beat her every week for eight months and sent her running the short distance home to her parents, where she now lives quietly without an education or work prospects.

"In my village, people…they gossip. But I didn't care about what people would say. I was fed up. I just wanted to get rid of him," A.F. says.

Even if the government were to pass a VAW law that satisfied advocates, violence against women in Morocco is unlikely to disappear, says Salima Bakkass of Amnesty International.

"The greater work to be done is [regarding] the mentality of the people who will live with these laws," says Bakkass. Moroccans, she adds, need "to understand that...it's not about men and women. It's about human beings, and human beings should be treated equally."

Daria Etezadi spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program. This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media (www.RoundEarthMedia.org), which is reinventing international news.

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