Four major themes arose from the data: (1) the legal and social divergence in conceptualizing forced and child marriage; (2) the impact of legislation; (3) the role of education; and (4) the economic factor.
Legal and social divergence in conceptualizing forced and child marriage
Participants were very vocal in condemning forced and child marriage, comparing it to rape and remarking on its pervasive nature across age and social class.
“This type of marriage is child rape; that is to say, her life has been raped by means of this marriage.” (Participant 16 – health care worker)
“There are people from disadvantaged sectors, Berbers, whose ages do not exceed 16 and with an exceedingly low level of education, just as there are wealthy, highly educated families, whose marriage age sometimes exceeds 26 and who are still subjected to this type of treatment. .... Sometimes we find that even the family has become a victim of coercion, and we are obliged to support both the girl and her family together.” (Participant 22 – lawyer)
Yet, from a legal vantage point, academic and legal participants drew attention to the “impossibility” of a forced marriage. In accordance with the law, the marriage contract must always be signed by both spouses, so, consistent with prevailing laws, forced marriage as such could not exist.
There is pressure, often from the family, that is a given. But once there is a signature, suggesting an agreement to the marriage, the contract is valid. Without consent the contract is void, and therefore the marriage has never taken place. (Participant 3 – academic)
This highlights the difficulties in conceptualizing a forced marriagek. Depending on the circumstances, it is difficult to determine whether or not the union was entered into freely. It is clear-cut in the case of physical violence actually denying a person’s freedom of consent. Yet, feelings of anxiety and fear can overrule any resistance to a marriage, leaving a person vulnerable and unable to escape the union.
“When women and girls are approached, they either deny or often don’t respond to the question if the marriage was forced. In light of prevailing law on marriage, consent is fundamental, so it’s problematic to regard the union as forced in these cases.” (Participant 2 – academic)
In the case of child marriage, the lack of maturity makes consent impossible. For that reason, authorizing an underage marriage should remain exceptional and treated with delicacy. As pointed out in the introduction, official figures tell a whole different story: child marriages authorized in family courts are increasing. To justify or explain this trend, a few participants referred to situations in which judges want to protect young girls from stigma, or provide the opportunity for a “better” life abroad.
“When faced with social taboos, such as loss of virginity or pregnancy, judges usually grant authorization to go through with the marriage. Otherwise it would be extremely detrimental to the girl’s status” (Participant 14 – government representative)
“Sometimes the girls standing in front of the judge are extremely convincing that they want to marry this Moroccan partner living abroad, usually in Europe. The media plays a huge role in presenting and instilling the belief in the European dream. It’s difficult for magistrates to turn down their request. In Morocco, everyone wants to leave. The images of the perfect life abroad bear on their impressionable minds and therefore, often, make them ‘impressionable’ to foreigners.” (Participant 2 – academic)
Participants from women’s rights organisations and health care facilities acknowledge the so-called legal pragmatism
that magistrates are confronted with, yet point out that the social reality paints a whole different picture. Instead, health professionals and women’s advocates in the field believe that judges repeatedly rule in a manner that is inconsistent with the progressive spirit of the law. Whereby appearing to protect the individual, often their patriarchal visions of the family unit motivate their decision [1
]. This might be influenced by the fact that the majority of the judges are male and married [27
]. Statistics of the Ministry of Justice confirm that only a minority of judges perform the medical and psychological exam or social inquiry into the reasons for marriage, despite this investigation being called for by lawl
“Frequently we observe that the judge contents himself with a personal evaluation based on the physical appearance of the girl. If she looks medically fit for marriage and, from a social point of view, is capable of running a household, the judge agrees to the marriage.” (Participant 21 – lawyer).
“We deal with girls as young as 14, which is well below the minimum age stipulated in the Moudawana. Often there is an element of deceit: when girls look much older than their age, the judges don’t blink an eye.” (Participant 15 – health care worker)
Since the decision to grant an underage marriage cannot be reversedm, judges seem to be taking matters firmly into their hands. The only other way to get out of the marriage is to divorce. Whereas this is perfectly possible on paper under the new provisions of the Moudawana, women and girls will often prefer to stay in a forced marriage than divorce. This is due to all the difficulties that the status of divorce brings about.
“Divorce rarely offers solutions for women. They have limited means to support themselves, let alone their children, and there’s a lot of stigma attached to it.” (Participant 5 – NGO representative)
“By calling for and encouraging divorce, feminist militants might do more harm than good.” (Participant 2 – academic)
Participants pointed out that unmarried women are not considered to have any rights and are abandoned by their families. Unwed mothers, and their children, are among the most legally and socially marginalized people in Morocco [4
]. This reality is what women face on a daily basis.
“It is a very serious issue socially and in the public conscience.” (Participant 8 – government representative)
Participants from the health care sector also pointed to the perpetuating vicious cycle of forced marriage, spanning several generations.
“Forced marriage is in itself a risk factor for [further] forced marriage. It has a considerable psychological impact of which children are the victims. Especially if the ensuing divorce means that the child must leave school.” (Participant 17 – health care worker)
“Deteriorating health in the victims of forced marriage affects not only the children of the marriage, but the (extended) family at large.” (Participant 9 – NGO representative)
Impact of legislation
Despite the revolutionary spirit of the new Family Code, the application of its provisions is still not presenting sufficient guarantees and protection 8 years after its introduction. Participants alluded to the prevailing patriarchal mentality throughout all layers of society.
“A woman’s identity has historically been linked to men. New laws or codes will not change that fact from one day to the next.” (Participant 1 – teacher)
“Despite the fact that the Family Code (Moudawana) sets forth a collection of articles, these do not go far enough in addressing what is required. It should not set forth any terms of marriage that do not radically tackle the problem of forced and child marriages, rather than doing so in a haphazard fashion.” (Participant 20 – lawyer)
Nevertheless, several participants underscored the importance of a legal provision, stressing that the constructive far-reaching effects of the new Family Code in the long term cannot be underestimated.
“If you have legal provisions in place and a legal document to fall back on, you can fight for your right and build on it. It’s a base, a foothold.” (Participant 3 – academic)
Yet, the law is sometimes put aside, due to ignorance or social practicesn firmly embedded in the patriarchal structure in pockets of society. The result is an engrained unawareness among girls and women of their rights.
“In rural areas, many child marriages escape from being included in the Ministry of Justice’ statistics. These marriages take on the form of a simple ‘Fatiha’ (declaration), remain unregistered, and transform girls into married women without them even being aware of it.” (Participant 9 – NGO representative)
Additionally, the Penal Code criminalizes all sexual relationships, including consensual, outside of marriage. As a result, the topics related to sexuality are social taboos that people avoid approaching, especially with young people [36
]. Regarding sexuality, teachers also adopt attitudes engrained in traditional values of decency, characterized by their religious faith, which hampers the spread of knowledge on sexual and reproductive health [37
“With sexual relations outside of marriage being considered illegal and an offence, the knowledge on sexual and reproductive health remains substandard.” (Participant 7 – NGO representative)
“Because of social stigma, we don’t discuss these things. Many boys and girls do not receive sexual education.” (Participant 13 – NGO representative)
Alarmingly, among the factors that increase the risk of forced marriage, participants referred to legal provisions. Besides being a compelling instrument to enhance lives, Moroccan law also has the power to harm. Article 475 of the Moroccan Penal Code, spurred on by the illegality of sexual relations outside of marriage, gives free reign to a forced marriage, thus legalizing the crime. When an underage girl is raped, the perpetrator can escape punishment and a prison sentence by marrying the girl. An aggressor used this legal escape route earlier this year, after which Amina, a 16-year old rape victim from Larache, committed suicide in March 2012. The highly mediatised incident resulted in mass protest in front of parliament and court buildings throughout the country [38
“Rights of women and girls are being raped by unjust Moroccan laws. It’s basically ongoing institutional rape.” (Participant 12 – NGO representative).
The role of education
The role of education is paramount. In all of the interviews, reference was made to the importance of knowledge. Adult literacy rate is 56,1% for the general population aged 15 years and older. The overall female adult literacy rate is lower at approximately 43,9%, compared to men at 68.9% [40
]. In the younger generation (15–24 years), literacy rates have risen steadily in the past 10 years. Nevertheless, boys and young men in this age group still outrank girls and young women by 86,7% to 72,1% [40
]. Boys also outnumber girls in primary net enrolment rates [41
Educational attainment is an important determining factor of marriage and adolescent childbearing. The number of women in Morocco who have had five years or more of schooling drops dramatically among women who married before the age of 20 [42
]. Over 70% of this group only attended school between 0 and 4 years [42
“It all comes down to education, in the family from early childhood onwards, the primary level of education, and the defining secondary years of schooling.” (Participant 1 – teacher)
“Education is the best prevention for forced marriage and child marriage. But according to a national study, approximately 80% of public schools in the Moroccan countryside have no water or electricity.” (Participant 8 – government representative)
Education starts at home, with the parents, grandparents and extended family. With illiteracy rates higher among older generations, sensitization and outreach activities about the detrimental effect of a forced child marriage should also be aimed to increase knowledge among girls’ and boys’ relatives. Paternal control issues frequently came up in interviews, stemming the girls’ freedom of expression and forcing then into marriage. It was mentioned that uncles and aunts have the right to intervene with the same authority as that of the father. Several participants emphasized parental authority in general, equally drawing attention to mother’s roles in marrying their children off, both for economic and social reasons.
“We have also dealt with maternal authoritarianism, especially intense among educated mothers. This brings to mind a case I experienced in the city of Tangiers, a mother who had decided to marry off her daughter to the son of a friend and business partner, since she stood to profit from this relationship in the field of business which she ran together with her friend. They were therefore married by force.” (Participant 20 – lawyer)
“One of the difficulties in handling forced marriage cases is dealing with mothers. They have an engrained belief in paternal authority and the need for a girl to be married. They are ruled by fear that their daughter might be rejected by society otherwise.” (Participant 6 – government representative)
A number of participants called for the schools to work in conjunction with the home front, by involving the extended family and “convincing them that the life of a girl is her property” (Participant 22 – lawyer). Participants believe schools can offer protection by speaking with parents and helping the girls psychologically. For that aim, several professionals dealing with victims resolutely stated that “school committees” should be empowered to conduct outreach activities and to intervene (Participants 15 – health care worker; 18 – teacher; 22 – lawyer).
Forced marriage and child marriage is an emanation of firmly fixed beliefs in masculine authority. Women, especially in the older generation, would never question the superiority of the husband. Consequently, men have been raised to be number one by their mothers, grandparents, social surroundings, etc. Girls were educated to be nice, docile and subservient. So when women challenge their status, it will initially bring about resistance and sometimes violence. (Participant 9 – NGO representative)
Participants call for the school system to take gender-based violence into account. Moreover, as a number of participants claimed, gender inequality appears to be embedded in education:
“Symbols of male power emanate from the King onwards and downwards into our educational system. In our workshops with school children, for example, one of the boys stated «I’m happy not to have sisters, otherwise I’d have to look after them and control them».” (Participant 8 – government representative)
“The school system perpetuates the social construction that is thousands of years old where the male figure is superior, even though she might think she’s emancipated. Victimization is still ongoing in all areas: sexual, economical, etc.” (Participant 2 – academic)
This is corroborated by a study on gender bias in Moroccan schoolbooks, which reviewed textbooks in Morocco for human rights and gender equality [43
]. The research, conducted in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education, concluded that few female authors were used either in the development of the textbooks or referenced within themo
. Publishers also tend to select women as textbook authors for subject matters like home economics, thus reaffirming gender stereotypes [43
]. Furthermore, teachers are almost exclusively male, especially in rural schools [44
“Girls, and boys for that matter, are educated in a system that recognizes male supremacy.” (Participant 7 – NGO representative)
Initiatives are being taken by NGO’s and women’s associations to organise awareness-raising events, to reinforce capabilities of women and girls, to expose belief systems and self-limiting patterns and to reconstruct their identities based on equality. All this takes time and money. Resources are limited however; so most organisations focus more on assistance as a curative measure, providing a listening ear, legal aid, mediation and health expertise. The importance of including men in the approach was recognized by all of the participants. This need was also identified at government level. One academic participant referred to the recently established ‘Master of Gender and Public Policy’ at the University Mohammed V in Rabat, a course that examines the subject of violence in depth, in order to deconstruct fixed views and explore the factors that lead to gender-based violence in the first place. The study programme, the first of its kind in 2009, is a scheme that was set up in partnership with the Ministry of Solidarity, Woman, Family and Social Development for the advancement of national expertise on the topic of gender equality and for the promotion of gender mainstreaming in the country.
Not only formal education will limit the risk of forced marriage, according to several participants it is up to the media, and especially the television, which figures prominently in households, to bring awareness and sensitization.
“Nowadays, television is a central part of every home in Morocco. Using this medium constructively, information and knowledge can be spread to members of several generations simultaneously, both male and female alike. Outdated concepts could be obliterated in a short time, with limited resources.” (Participant 11 – NGO representative)
The economic factor
Participants from women’s organisations and NGO’s view women as agents of grassroots change. Yet it is repeatedly mentioned that education alone is not enough.
“Education goes hand in hand with economic development. Only a very encompassing approach will ultimately lead to greater results.” (Participant 7 – NGO representative)
For example, participants reported that most judges in Family Courts authorize underage marriages for economic reasons, especially if the region is poorer. There was also mention of a strong link between economic development and sexual and reproductive rights.
“A woman with an income has more power in the relationship. She can exercise her rights to contraception and family planning.” (Participant 3 – academic)
A compelling tool for women upon entering marriage is the marriage contract. With the new Moudawana, women were granted more rights in the negotiation of marriage contracts.
“A marriage contract, negotiated before tying the knot, is a good initiative to raise awareness and empower women at a very basic level by educating them on their rights and by safeguarding them economically in the ensuing marriage”. (Participant 4 – NGO representative)
Participants pointed to the current job market as a compelling barrier for economic advancement and independence. Formal education does not automatically guarantee a job in today’s economy. Therefore, lots of young men and women aspire to immigrate to Europe.
“The youth have now adopted a new vision as a result of satellite television and the immigration culture, as well as technology.” (Participant 22 – lawyer)
This, in turn, has an impact on marriage.
“The marriage market has taken on a transnational element, as many young girls dream of tying the knot with a Moroccan husband living in Europe.” (Participant 2 – academic)
The overall sentiment among participants was that legislation has advanced, yet the economic development still lags behind. This is especially the case for women, who are more illiterate than men. Economic inequalities also form the basis for less education, perpetuating a vicious cycle and resulting in less awareness about basic sexual and reproductive rights. However, several participants also call for legal amendments to support women’s economic independence seeing that the Moudawana did not eliminate gender discrimination in the inheritance system.
“Despite far-reaching reforms some years ago, economic discrimination is still part of Moroccan law. This is most notable in the provisions regarding inheritance, which states that a woman receives only half of what her brother receives. This perpetuates the vicious cycle of economic insecurity.” (Participant 3 – academic)
Favourable factors, such as schooling and legal amendments should have decreased the number of forced and child marriages. Nevertheless, several participants faced a rising amount of instances in the past years, predominantly in more deprived regions, pointing to a possible link between socio-economic hardship and the risk of being forced into wedlock. By marrying off his daughters, fathers can not only lessen the financial burden on the household, but also receive a dowry in exchange, both of which act as an incentive [2
“Especially in certain areas of the country, notably in the Greater and Lesser Atlas, the phenomenon is growing steadily. Girls are married off after they reach the age of 12 or 13, and these children have absolutely no power over what the families or village notables may or may not decide. The socio-economic status of this group is frequently precarious. This type of marriage will result in problems that even the law is unable to resolve.” (Participant 20 – lawyer)