Marriage of female minors in Morocco triggers pushback

Of all requests put to courts demanding authorisation to marry underage females, only 18% were turned down by judges.
Sunday 09/02/2020
A Moroccan girl attends a Berber festival in the western desert town of Tan-Tan.    (AFP)
In need for protection. A Moroccan girl attends a Berber festival in the western desert town of Tan-Tan. (AFP)

RABAT - Morocco’s Family Code sets the minimum age for marriage at 18 and Article 20 leaves decisions to judges whether to issue waivers for the marriage of a minor. However, such waivers can no longer be described as exceptions. In 2018, more than 32,000 requests for girls under 18 to marry were presented to the courts.

Moroccan Justice Minister Mohamed Benabdelkader told the Moroccan House of Representatives it was time to eliminate the exceptions.

Marrying minors in Morocco is under the control of the Family Code, for their protection against being exploited. Only a court judge has the power to allow the marriage of a minor and this supposedly in very exceptional cases.

Member of the Political Bureau of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces Fatima Belmouden pointed out that the “exception” clause was used by those opposing changes in the social conditions of women to produce a catastrophic situation. She said society must move from demanding accountability to amending the Family Code.

Parliamentarian Fatiha Saddas said it had become a top priority to re-examine the Family Code, 16 years after its inception. Repealing Article 20 of the code has become an imperative considering provisions of the 2011 constitution and of complying with international agreements ratified by Morocco.

Only 18% of all requests put to courts demanding authorisations to marry underage females were turned down by the judges. Nearly all — 99.46% — of the requests were made by females. The phenomenon is typically rural with 21,000 — more than two-thirds of the total — requests were made in rural areas.

Saddas said that in rural areas, it is customary to believe that a girl who reaches a certain age unmarried will never get married. This why some parents marry off their daughters at the age of 12. “This is also why I said that we must begin raising awareness of the problem and criminalise the marriage of minors because it is a form of paedophilia,” Saddas said.

“It should be borne in mind that what pushes parents to marry off their girls at a young age is economic vulnerability,” she said. “Marrying them off young is a way to get rid of their economic burden.”

The first culprit is social norms, followed by economic fragility, in addition to inequality between the sexes, still very much rooted in rural culture. This is contrary to the Moroccan Constitution. As Saddas pointed out, indicating that there are people whose economic conditions are acceptable but they still marry off their daughters at an early age.

“It is sad for Morocco to waste its women’s potential, by not having them complete their studies and contribute to the country’s development,” Saddas said.

Benabdelkader said it was noticeable that 98% of the requests for authorisation were submitted by unemployed petitioners. He said requests lessened from 2015-18 but added: “There are still problems associated with the Family Code itself, its implementation and also the cultural aspect, which requires horizontal intervention from all (state) sectors.”

Prevailing outdated social norms and customs have triumphed over legislation and efforts to ban underage marriages in Morocco. This type of marriage is considered a lifeline for a secure future for rural girls, regardless of it limiting their chances to get an education and learn skills to be able to join the country’s labour force.

He said that when the Family Code made allowances for the judge to gauge the existence of exceptional circumstances, it referred to situations in which there was an obvious necessity “but it seems that there are no obvious necessities.”

He stressed that the law affirms that “education is a child’s basic right, a duty of the state and an obligation of the family. Therefore, we must mobilise to educate minors, not marry them off.”

Although many laws, such as the Family Code, are fair to women, they contain shortcomings that women suffer from, such as divorce and underage marriage. Mohamed Abdennabaoui, public prosecutor at the Court of Cassation and head of the Public Prosecution, told the audience at a study day in Marrakech about underage marriage that the rise in requests for permissions to marry minors was a source of concern.

Abdennabaoui said the judge’s conscience should have the final say in cases pertaining to children affairs and underage marriages. This indicates a gap between the country’s ambitions to protect children from having their rights violated through ensuring appropriate legal and social means and the social and economic realities of families that encourage underage marriages.

The marriage of minors is a societal phenomenon that has cultural, social and economic dimensions. The law’s intervention can only be from top to bottom. Saddas said: “The place of a female minor is in school and it is up to the state, with its various institutions, to sensitise people, especially in rural areas, that marrying off minors has serious psychological, health, social and economic dimensions.

“The state must also address the problem of human trafficking networks that exploit girls and their families who suffer from a fragile economic situation and subject them to sexual exploitation.”

Abdennabaoui said the Presidency of the Public Prosecution is preparing a study on the subject, which is expected to shed light on problems that hinder limiting underage marriages, especially at the level of judicial intervention. The study is also to address loopholes that allow people to circumvent the underage marriage law or make it a de facto reality that requires a judicial decision.