Rape victims no longer forced to marry their aggressors

Although Morocco has done away with a controversial law allowing rapists of underage girls to escape prosecution if they marry their victims, the basic problem of rape remains. Activists say it's time to enact change in society to protect rape victims. By Monika Griebeler

By Monika Griebeler

Houda Lamqaddam fought for this decision for almost two years, but when it finally came, the Moroccan activist no longer felt like celebrating. On Wednesday, 22 January, Morocco's parliament voted to scrap a highly controversial law that allowed the rapist of an underage girl to avoid punishment if he marries his victim.

Many girls have suffered this fate, but the 2012 case of Amina al-Filali shocked the country. Just months after being forced to marry her rapist, the 16-year-old committed suicide. To protect the family's honour, her family and the judge had put pressure on the girl to agree to the marriage, which was legal under article 475 of the penal code.

Lamqaddam and her fellow activists accordingly named their campaign against this particular law and against sexual violence against women "475" and made a documentary film about Amina al-Filali.

Houda Lamqaddam (photo: DW/M. Magunia)
Prize-winner in the category Best Social Activism: the Moroccan youth initiative "475" made a film documenting the fate of 16-year-old Amina, who took her own life in 2012 after her family and a Moroccan judge forced her to marry the man who raped her. Houda Lamqaddam (pictured here), who is a member of the group and the film's narrator, accepted the prize on behalf of "475“

The fight is not over

The young woman, who accepted Deutsche Welle's 2013 Best Social Activism Award at The Bobs on behalf of the group, welcomed the scrapping of article 475, but added that the Moroccan parliament's move doesn't change much in reality. "For female rape victims, it's still very difficult to find justice," says Lamqaddam. "The judicial system is heavily biased in favour of men, the attackers, and there is very little support for women who are victims of rape and sexual violence."

Basically, women have no one to turn to, since families will blame the victim. According to Lamqaddam, there is a lot of victim-blaming going on.

Although the equality of men and women was anchored in Morocco's constitution in 2011, it hasn't arrived in people's daily lives. Women are supposed to be pure and virgins until marriage or they are cast out. It is engrained in the more traditional sectors of Moroccan society as well as other countries, including several in the Arab world: rape is a stigma; no other man will marry a rape victim. For Lamqaddam, this means the struggle is not yet over.

Discrimination against female rape survivors or their stigmatisation means that victims often choose not to report rape and not to seek out support services ‒ even where they do exist ‒ because they are afraid of being abandoned by their families, according to Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch.

"That's the global challenge – it is not just a challenge that Morocco is facing: the way that communities and states respond to rape, and in particular the prevention of violence against women," says Gerntholtz.

Protests against forced marriages for rape victims (photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Moroccan women protest against forced marriages for rape victims: the tragic case of Amina al-Filali caused outrage in Morocco, which eventually led to the repeal of the law that allowed rapists to escape justice if they married their victims

Society needs to change

"It is difficult to imagine the profound psychological consequences and harm caused by rape," says Gerntholtz, adding that she welcomes improvements and legal changes like the Moroccan amendment as a first step. "Because this decision acknowledges that rape is a crime and that perpetrators should not be allowed to escape accountability in any way, she said. It also acknowledges the harm caused when the victim is confronted with the act again after it occurs."

Now, she argues, the law must be implemented in an adequate manner. Lamqaddam agrees, "The law must be translated into action by the police, by families, by everyone". She goes on to say that the police must learn to implement and enforce the law; families must learn to value and protect their girls; communities must grant victims of rape and sexual violence medical aid, psychological support and refuge; and Morocco needs a law that actually protects women from sexual violence, says Lamqaddam.

Neither she nor Gerntholtz know each other or have ever met. Nevertheless, these two women are united in the same cause: they want to prevent rape or at least mitigate its consequences so that victims no longer face a situation where the insult of forced marriage is added to the appalling injury of rape.

Monika Griebeler

© Deutsche Welle 2014

Editor: Sean Sinico/DW and Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de