MARRAKESH, MOROCCO — The girl at the police station in Marrakesh said she was not sure how old she was, 13 or maybe 14. Sitting on a chair in the unit that processes youth cases, she told a chilling account of being gang raped, and said she had no relatives willing to shelter her.
She gave conflicting statements and when she was finished speaking with two male police officers, no one was clear on what had really happened. There were only two consistent elements in her testimony: that her first name was Amal and that she was pregnant.
Like many unmarried girls in Morocco, she would be afraid to admit to having had a sexual relationship because of the social stigma but also because it is illegal to have sex outside of marriage.
Last year, 16-year-old Amina Filali committed suicide after a judge and her parents forced her to marry her alleged rapist, causing a national and international uproar.
In 2004, Morocco changed its code of family law, shifting away from Islamic principles by giving more rights to women regarding divorce and polygamy, and raising the minimum marriage age for women to 18 from 15.
But conservative judges have been finding ways around the law. Courts have granted special dispensation for minors to marry in 90 percent of the cases that have appeared before them, according to 2010 data reported by the Justice Ministry.
And while human rights groups are urging Moroccan leaders to further reinforce women’s rights, amending the penal code remains a sensitive issue. While the government has ratified international treaties on human rights, its own laws do not yet conform, a situation that has led to protests, human rights groups say.
In Amal’s case, the police officers who questioned her late last month were extremely gentle. The presence of Najat Oulami, a member of the women’s advocacy group Al Amane, seemed to help.
“We help women navigate the system and make sure that every woman that comes to our offices asking for our help is treated well by the authorities,” Ms. Oulami said. “We took Amal to our shelter, we gave her clothes and fed her. But she is a minor, we cannot take on the responsibility and the authorities need to deal with her case.”
Because Al Amane cannot shelter minors, Amal was sent to a different shelter, and her whereabouts are now unclear.
To avoid more tragedies like the Filali suicide, rights groups say that Morocco must change Article 475 in its penal code, which allows for a charge to be dropped in cases of statutory rape if the two parties get married. One interpretation of this provision has allowed rapists to swap the charges against them for a wedding ring and a child bride.
“The problem is, many judges are very conservative,” Ms. Oulami said, “and they believe that it is better to save the girl’s honor by giving their permission to let minors get married.”
Al Amane is one of several groups throughout Morocco working with Global Rights, a nongovernmental organization that aims to help women get more access to the justice system.
A grant from the Netherlands has led to the creation of a Web site called Marsadnissa, or Women’s Observatory, where judicial decisions are listed as a sort of database to help women’s rights lawyers across Morocco argue the law more effectively.
This kind of tracking mechanism is crucial, rights advocates say.
“Judges don’t know how cases are being decided across the country — there is no systematic collection and publication of court decisions at the local level,” said Stephanie Willman Bordat, an American who is the Global Rights director for the Maghreb region of North Africa. “We’d like to see greater consistency in court decisions and greater protection of women’s rights by the judiciary.”
In January, the Justice Ministry issued a statement saying it was in favor of abrogating Article 475 and human rights groups are confident it will be struck down by Parliament. The Islamist-led government, however, is not showing much impetus to act.
“The pressure of civil society has already created an impact: It has become impossible now to marry a girl under the age of 16,” Kachane Belcaide, a lawyer in the northeastern city of Khemisset, said last month. Still, “the current government seems to be divided,” he added. “There is no sign that a special law on violence against women will be put forward.”
Observers say that any changes undertaken by Morocco will not mean much as long as there is not a strong and independent judiciary to apply the law. In fact, Moroccan judges themselves are demanding changes to the family code. In August 2011, judges formed the association of Moroccan judges, which now has 3,700 members, to protest judicial corruption and interference by the executive branch, which they say undermines their independence.
Aziz Nizar, a judge and former president of the association, said initiatives like Marsadnissa would help change the system. “There are many ways to interpret a law,” he said. “I frequently go on the Web site, read the decisions and am inspired by them. Sometimes I even enter comments and give my opinion on some cases.”
Despite the various initiatives, the biggest obstacle to advancing protections for girls seems to be the prevailing mentality in Morocco about women and their place in society. A recent online documentary about the rape law, “475: Trêve de Silence,” in which Moroccans of all ages and from different parts of society were interviewed on pre-marital sex and rape, showed a clear consensus that a girl who had lost her virginity had lost her value.
“A woman should stay at home and only go out to run errands,” one man said in the documentary, suggesting that a rape victim was responsible because she put herself in danger. “She shouldn’t be wandering around the streets.”
Even some women in the film said they believed that was normal for men to desire women. As one teenager put it: “The man is never guilty.”
By Aida Alami
Source: The New York Times