How a network of NGOs called for reform and won

A law that allowed rapists to dodge jail by marrying their victims has been changed by the Parliament of Morocco in the wake of a campaign by IPPF’s Member Association in the North African country, the Association Marocaine de Planification Familiale (AMPF)  – IPPF’s Member Association in Morocco.

Although anyone who ‘abducts or deceives a minor’ could face a prison sentence under Article 475, a second clause of the article specified that, when the victim marries the perpetrator, "he can no longer be prosecuted except by persons empowered to demand the annulment of the marriage and then only after the annulment has been proclaimed".

This meant that prosecutors were prevented from independently pursuing rape charges.

“The spirit of the 2011 constitution stated that men and women should be treated equally, and yet it also included the controversial Article 475.

We set up an advocacy campaign to reform two laws: the first allowed rapists to avoid jail by marrying their victims and the second gave the right to judges to allow child marriage ‘for cultural and social reasons’.”

Rape ‘reinforced’ by families

In parts of Morocco, particularly in rural areas, an unmarried girl or woman who has lost her virginity - even through rape - is considered to have brought dishonour on her family. Marrying the rapist is thought to alleviate this ‘shame’, regardless of the woman’s own feelings.

Not only was a woman raped physically, she could then be forced by her family to live with the perpetrator .Another horrific consequence of this law was that, if a man wanted to marry a woman who was unwilling, he could by raping her effectively force her into marriage.

In August 2013, a group of NGOs that advocate for women’s rights joined forces to fight against child marriage, and to set an action plan. In November 2013 this group met in AMPF office and decided to organize a “Peace and White” March to call for the abolition of the two laws.

‘Peace’ because it was non-violent and ‘White’ to represent the white of doctors’ coats – to show how rape and forced and child marriage has a direct impact on the health of women.  Two doctors who work in our clinics joined us on the march.

We waved placards but we were silent as we marched on the Parliament building in Rabat. Many women suffer in silence and I think the march emphasized that.

The Peace and White March was followed by a Pink March – pink to symbolise women’s rights. Each march raised public interest and media coverage.

It took the tragic case of Amina Filali, a 16-year-old girl who was forced into marriage after she was raped and who committed suicide after seven months of marriage, to be the final catalyst - something that caused a deep sense of shock across the country and sparked protests in several cities.

Victory came on 8th January 2014 when we heard that the law had been changed, though the clause relating to child marriage has been postponed for further consultation.

We are working on a declaration to express our thanks to the government and to request further discussion. Much still needs to be done to promote gender equality, outlaw child marriage and to change the law on abortion.

In Morocco, abortion is prohibited. The law punishes severely both the person who helps the woman to abort and the women herself. This opens wide the door to a lucrative and sometimes dangerous underground.   

The only exception that is tolerated by law is therapeutic abortion when there is a danger to the health or life of the mother. In cases of malformations, rape, incest and psychiatric diseases, abortions are not allowed by the Criminal Code. This is why many Moroccans are forced to make desperate decisions which can lead to abortions in unsafe conditions, abandonment, and even infanticide.  The magnitude of these actions is largely underestimated, given the illegality of the act and the taboo nature of the subject.

We want the government to adopt the WHO definition of health - which also includes the mental and social aspects of health. We have met with two political parties and already have their support for this. We are planning to organize a national debate to advocate for non-unsafe abortion for women, the law has to consider the WHO definition of health, and be more tolerate regards medical abortion in some specific circumstances.

Pushing for the WHO definition would address the social aspects of a woman’s reality. It would initiate a constructive debate and objective organization dedicated to the economic, social and legal aspects for individual’s, taking into account ethical and religious considerations based on open and tolerant Islam. The discussion should lead to the adoption of a multidimensional strategy for the prevention and management of unsafe abortions.

The time is right for change. It’s not just a victory for us in Morocco but for women throughout the Arab World. A legacy of the Arab Spring and globalization is that we are sharing experience and learning how to make our voices heard at the highest level. This success will encourage women in other Arab World countries to fight for changes in the law.

The change in the law has been a fantastic boost for us. One of the best things to come out of it is the way it showed us how to mobilize as a civil society movement.

There’s still much room for improvement. One in four women in Morocco is a victim of violence. Many articles in the penal code need to be reformed because they contain provisions that allow women to be discriminated against and don’t protect women from violence. The Moroccan Ministry of Women, Family and Solidarity is working on a new law that penalizes harassment against women. It’s a good initiative that needs more involvement from us as civil society.

As for convictions for rapists in the future – I don’t know how soon we will see these. One thing I can say for sure is that we have sent a strong message, one that says women have to be at the centre of the discussions about laws that affect them.”