We Cheered for the Women of Morocco

Moroccan Woman's Eyes

Article highlights

  • The Advocates for Human Rights and its Moroccan partner, Mobilizing for Rights Associates, attended the review of Morocco in Geneva by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • MRA, other Moroccan NGOs, and The Advocates partnered on a report  submitted to the Committee on the treatment of women in Morocco.
  • The submission shined light on the widespread violence against women, need for domestic violence legislation, lack of access to housing, healthcare and other support for victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, early marriage of girls, and polygamy.
  • Particularly given what we’ve learned about biology since Henry VIII, it was astonishing to hear from Morocco’s representative examples justifying polygamy.
  • The Committee adopted many of the recommendations made by the Advocates’ and MRA’s joint report, including abolishing polygamy in Morocco.

“I have a question about polygamy. If a man may
have more than one wife, why doesn’t Morocco
allow women to have two husbands?”

Ms. Heisoon Shin, one of the three women who serve as independent experts on the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, asked the Moroccan delegation this question. Sitting in the audience, our group of staff and volunteers from The Advocates for Human Rights, as well as colleagues from our Moroccan partner organization Mobilizing for Rights Associates (“MRA”), could hardly keep from cheering out loud. Yet, the government’s response, articulated by Employment Minister Abdeslam Seddiki had us smacking our foreheads and sinking in our chairs.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Committee) monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the countries who are bound by the Covenant. By ratifying, those countries have agreed, among other things, to undertake to ensure that women have equal rights to the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. They have also agreed to regularly report on how they are complying with the Covenant, including at an in-person review at the UN in Geneva.

Morocco was up for review during our recent advocacy trip to the UN in Geneva. In collaboration with MRA and an alliance of Moroccan NGOs, The Advocates prepared a report on issues relating to the economic, social, and cultural rights of women in Morocco that it submitted to the Committee. The submission discusses widespread violence against women, the need for domestic violence legislation, lack of access to housing, healthcare and other support for victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, early marriage of girls, and polygamy.

During the last review of Morocco in 2006, the Committee stated that “certain traditions, customs and cultural practices in Morocco continue to prevent women from fully exercising their rights under the Covenant.” In particular, the Committee noted that polygamy, which violates women’s dignity and constitutes discrimination against women, continues to be practiced in Morocco.

Morocco allows a man to take an additional wife if he proves to a judge that he has  “exceptional and objective justification” and “sufficient resources.” According to the government of Morocco, polygamy “occurs only in exceptional cases” and it is declining. However, as The Advocates and MRA explained in their report to the Committee, the 2004 Family Code continues to allow polygamy when a husband’s petition to take another wife is approved by a judge. The approval rate of petitions for authorization to take another wife is high and increasing; 43.41% of petitions for polygamy authorizations were granted in 2010, up from 40.36% in 2009.[1] Additionally, marriage registration procedures originally designed to protect women in verbal marriages are being used to circumvent polygamy restrictions.

Minister Seddiki addressed Ms. Shin’s question. In a conciliatory tone, he explained his view that:

[I]t would be reasonable for a man to take an additional wife, if for example his current wife was unable to bear children. In the case of a farmer who needed sons to work with him but whose wife failed to give birth to boys, he said, taking an additional wife would be perfectly understandable.

Particularly given what we’ve learned about biology since Henry VIII, it was astonishing to hear these examples as justification for polygamy.

Stephanie Willman, a founding partner of MRA later told Morocco World News that she was “shocked” by the Minister’s statement that it is “normal for men to want to take another wife.”  She added, “It’s normal for people to want things, but one can’t always have everything he or she wants. That’s why there are laws – to make sure that one person’s wants don’t violate the human rights of others – in this case, of women’s human rights to be treated with dignity as equal human beings.”

Sometimes people say, “Well, it’s cultural” and suggest that it may be inappropriate to “impose our values” on others. Mr. Waleed Sadi, chairperson of the CESCR had the perfect answer to this. In closing the session on Morocco he said:

Many people from all over the world spent countless hours thinking, talking, debating and considering economic, social, cultural rights and human rights. They arrived at consensus and developed the standards set forth in the Covenant. Cultural norms must conform to those standards, not the other way around.

Once again, I for one felt like cheering.

Epilogue:

In its recent Concluding Observations, the Committee adopted many of the recommendations made by the Advocates’ and MRA’s joint report, including abolishing polygamy in Morocco. The Committee urged the government of Morocco to conduct awareness campaigns to eliminate gender stereotypes and promote women’s rights; to accelerate the adoption of the bill on sexual harassment, especially in the workplace but also on sexual harassment in all its forms and in all places, including instituting penalties consistent with the seriousness of the offense.

The Committee also recommended that Morocco take steps to ensure that victims can file complaints without fear of reprisals and have access to redress and adequate compensation; adopt a comprehensive law on violence against women in accordance with international standards; and ensure its application to eliminate all forms of violence against women, including marital rape.

The Committee further recommended that Morocco take steps to investigate and prosecute offenders and allow victims of domestic violence access to effective remedies and immediate protection measures, including by establishing a sufficient number of shelters.

Finally, the Committee recommended abolishing the criminalization of illicit sexual relations; amending the law to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 and repealing Article 20 of the Family Code, which allows judges to authorize underage marriage.

By Julie Shelton, attorney and Chicago-based volunteer who The Advocates for Human Rights honored with its Volunteer Award in 2014. Ms. Shelton traveled in September to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates and other volunteers.

[1] Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM), Rapport des ONG de défense des droits des femmes au Maroc au titre du 2e Examen Périodique Universel (EPU) (November 2011).

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