NEARLY a year after the suicide of a 16-year-old Moroccan girl who was forced to marry her alleged rapist, the government in Rabat has announced plans to change the penal code to outlaw the traditional practice.
Women’s rights activists yesterday welcomed justice minister Mustapha Ramid’s announcement, but said it was only a first step in reforming a penal code that fails to properly protect women in the north African kingdom.
A paragraph in Article 475 of the penal code allows those convicted of “corruption” or “kidnapping” of a minor to go free if they marry their victim. The practice was encouraged by judges to spare family shame.
Last March, Amina al-Filali poisoned herself to get out of a seven-month-old abusive marriage to a 23-year-old she said had raped her. Her parents and a judge had pushed the marriage to protect the family honour. The incident sparked calls for the law to be reformed.
The traditional practice can be found across the Middle East and in places such as India and Afghanistan where the loss of a woman’s virginity out of wedlock is seen as a stain on a clan or tribe’s honour.
While the legal marriage age is 18, judges routinely approve much younger unions in Morocco, a deeply conservative country of 32 million with high illiteracy and poverty.
“Changing this article is a good thing but it doesn’t meet all of our demands,” said Khadija Ryadi, president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. “The penal code has to be totally reformed because it contains many provisions that discriminate against women and doesn’t protect women against violence.”
She singled out parts of the law that distinguish between “rape resulting in deflowering and just plain rape”. The proposed penal code sets out a ten-year jail term for consensual sex following the corruption of a minor but doubles the term if the sex results in “deflowering.”
Fouzia Assouli, president of the Democratic League for Women’s Rights, echoed Ms Ryadi’s concerns, explaining that the code only penalises violence against women from a moral standpoint “and not because it is just violence”.
“The law doesn’t recognise certain forms of violence against women, such as conjugal rape, while it still penalises other normal behaviour like sex outside of marriage between adults,” she added. Recent government statistics reported that 50 per cent of attacks against women occur within marriage.
The change to the penal code follows nearly a year of delay by the Islamist-dominated regime.
The justice ministry had argued Ms Filali hadn’t been raped and the sex, which took place when she was 15, had been consensual. The prime minister later argued before parliament that the marriage provision in the penal code was rarely used.
“In 550 cases of the corruption of minors between 2009 and 2010, only seven were married under Article 475, the rest were pursued by justice,” premier Abdelilah Benkirane said on 24 December.
Morocco updated its family code in 2004, but a comprehensive law combating violence against women has been left gathering dust for eight years.