The Loopholes in Morocco's Law on Violence Against Women

Wednesday 14 March 201808:44 pm
Morocco's law on violence against women defines the crime as "every violent act whether physical or emotional, or gender-based abstention that results in physical, psychological, sexual or financial damage to a woman". The punishment stated by the law includes prison terms ranging from one month to five years for those who are found guilty of sexually harassing women via social media and chatting applications -- such as Facebook and Whatsapp -- with fines ranging from $200 to 1000. The law was introduced on Valentine's Day after years of debate that witnessed a tug-of-war between supporters and critics from political parties and rights groups. It will be enacted six months after its publication in the official bulletin. Some see the law as a radical change while others believe it will be more injunctive than a prevention measure, with optimists considering it a good step to deter harassment and violence against women. Raseef22 delves into the legislation primarily in light of a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report issued on 26 February, as well as the perspective of lawyer Almou Mohammed -- renowned for defending the detainees of the protest movement Hirak Al-Chaabi, and supporting reforms with regard to women’s rights.

What Is New?

The HRW report heaps praise on the law for defining violence against women, yet criticizes it for neither outlining domestic violence nor explicitly criminalizing marital rape. Speaking to Raseef22, Almou says the law aims at regulating freedoms but did not pose a fundamental change. "It is considered to be an amended and patched up version of some chapters of the penal code, with an attempt to decorate it with some terms and words to make it look as if it provides protection for women," he said. Human rights activist Maryam Haneen said although the law would not deter molestation or violence, the fact that it was upheld was a victory for women in Morocco, especially against a backdrop of rampant sexual harassment. However, Aber Murad, an employee at a private company, is convinced that the law "decreases the value of the man". "The law is discriminatory against the man, and limits our behavior," he told Raseef22, regarding the law with disdain. Murad's opinion does not necessarily represent the mainstream as much as it demonstrates how some men hold onto the impunity the community has granted them. Kamal, a teacher, expressed full support for the law, saying it would effectively combat sexual harassment. He said to Raseef22: "How many ladies, wives and mothers have been victims of molestation every day while on buses, in home or at work? It's all because of the absence of the authorities." Some people believe men and women are both responsible for sexual harassment, possibly blaming the latter for wearing revealing outfits. Pious people could put molestation down to female garments that are not "socially suitable", holding women -- not harassers -- culpable for sexual assaults. Linking sexual harassment to women's lack of modesty has seemingly ratcheted up molestation rates. According to official data released by Morocco's High Commission for Planning in 2009, women who put on "contemporary short" pieces of clothes outside their houses are the most prone to sexual violence. The statistics show that 75,5 percent of women from this category were harassed in public spaces in cities against 61 percent of women who wear "long outfits" yet without the head veil. Meanwhile, only 34 percent of women wearing the traditional galabia, ankle length robe, or similar modest garments were subject to molestation. Overall, some 808,000 Moroccan women of all ages and social classes -- just over 14 percent of women in urban areas -- were physically assaulted, according to the High Commission for Planning. Younger women are more prone to violence; only 25 percent of women between 50 and 64 were subject to assaults against 58,3 percent of female youth between 18 and 24. The statistics also show that marital status is a factor. Married women are the least vulnerable, with only 33,4 percent of them subject to violence in public spaces. Meanwhile, 46,3 and 66,3 percent of divorced and single women respectively fell victim to it. Widows comprise the smallest segment in this category; 27 percent. The Moroccan Health Ministry says 12,218 cases of violence against women were documented in 2014. Cases that were registered by all security bodies amounted to 15,865 in the same year. [caption id="attachment_71500" align="alignnone" width="825"] A protest on the International Women's Day in 2015.[/caption]

Can Punishment Be the Remedy?

Asmaa, a working woman, says she has reservations about the law. "It would've been better to solve the problem radically rather than pushing for injunctions and punitive measures." Such measures might not comprise a remedy per se, yet they remain significant to deter violence against women, according to Almou. These measures "have to be accompanied by awareness, not to mention boosting moral values", he said. "Amid a cultural incubator that doesn't encourage a change of mentalities, violence against women is spreading on all social levels and classes. Legal procedures and preemptive measures are essential to keep abusers at bay." MP Mostafa El-Shenawy from the Federation of the Democratic Left voiced disgruntlement with the law, saying it relies on "a lot on verses from the penal code", which explains why it is "more injunctive than protective and preventive". Human rights activist Mariah Al-Sharkawy believes the law will not fully protect her from sexual harassment. She said punishment and preemptive measures cannot be the solution, stressing that upbringing and child rearing are the main factors. "We still have a long way until we treat the woman as a human being, not based on her gender," Al-Sharkawy said. "Our Arab communities are male-dominant, and that prevents women from being entitled to their social, cultural and political rights."

Will the Law Be Enforced?

Almou says that roughing up a woman or breaking her teeth is not a mere assault, but a "crime that shakes the whole community". He says culprits of such crimes are dangerous individuals who authorities have to ward off. But practically speaking, he explains, punishing such criminals can hardly be applicable. "The law is ineffective," Almou said, adding that there are no social or economic structures that make the implementation of the law possible. For instance, it is quite hard to enforce a restraining order imposed on an abusive man to protect his partner, or even provide a shelter for the latter, Almou explains. "The dominant procedures in the penal code don't help [a lawyer] prove the crimes listed in the law," he said. "The new law didn't introduce new practical procedures to verify cases of violence." "When a woman is assaulted by her husband, he would be found not guilty even if she submitted a medical certificate" proving that she was injured, Almou said, adding that witnesses are key to uphold the charge. "This is a classic trend that we have to overcome." The HRW report has adopted the same perspective. It highlights that although the new law criminalizes some forms of domestic violence, includes prevention measures and provides protection for victims, "it requires survivors to file for criminal prosecution to obtain protection, which few can do". Most female plaintiffs "drop the few criminal cases that are filed as a result of pressure from their or their abuser's families or because they are financially dependent on their abusers... In some cases, police told victims to return to their abusers". There are around ten shelters designated for abused women across Morocco, which is not nearly enough given the number of cases. They operate under the supervision of non-governmental organizations and do not receive sufficient funding from the government, the HRW report elaborates. Considering enforcing the law, the report underlines that it does not "set out duties of police, prosecutors, and investigative judges in domestic violence cases, or fund women's shelters". The report, however, commends the law because it "obligates public authorities to take prevention measures, including programs to raise awareness on violence against women". "It also provides for specialized units to serve the needs of women and children in courts, government agencies, and security forces, and local, regional, and national committees to address women's and children's issues." On the other hand, the report says "the law does not include mechanisms to monitor the units or committees, or hold authorities accountable if they fail to carry out their duties", highlighting that "Human Rights Watch has documented problems with the few existing units". Rothna Begum, Middle East and North Africa women's rights researcher at HRW, was quoted as saying: "Protecting women and girls from domestic violence requires not only legal changes but funding and political support for enforcement and services." While HRW says the Moroccan government has taken good steps to protect women from different forms of violence, it is yet to be seen whether authorities will provide financial and political support to instigate a more tangible change in this regard.
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