“This is how change happens” – Activists use social media for reproductive justice in Morocco
The death of Meriem, a 14-year old teenager, at the beginning of September sparked outrage among Morocco’s activists for reproductive rights. Meriem died because of a clandestine abortion that took place at the home of the man who was sexually exploiting her.
Young women have since mobilised online to push for laws to be changed. Yasmina Benslimane, founder of the nonprofit feminist organisation Politics4Her, has launched an online petition urging lawmakers to reform the Moroccan Penal Code which makes termination illegal and punishable by up to five years in prison.
“Abortion is only legal in Morocco if a woman’s health is really in danger, and even so she needs her husband’s permission,” Benslimane tells us. “We want to legalise it in cases of ‘force majeur,’ such as rape, incest and health risks – whether physical or mental. It’s a debate that was opened in 2015 by the King through a series of consultations, but the project has not been followed up by the parliament, and there haven’t been any modifications.”
The petition calls for a decriminalisation of medical abortion within a public health code that aligns with the Word Health Organisations’ recommendations. It also asks for the development of a plan for girls and boys to access sex education and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
“Our goal is to put pressure on our legislators,” Benslimane says. “It’s been seven years. They haven’t done anything. Kids and women are dying. There’s between 600 to 800 clandestine abortions every day. It affects more women and girls from rural areas, from lower socioeconomic status, because women from a privileged background can just pay for it.”
Social media advocacy
Since its launch five years ago, Politics4Her has taken to social media to advocate for women’s empowerment and leadership, mainly using Facebook and Instagram to raise awareness of reproductive health and gender equality issues. Parallel to the petition, they have started an online strike to highlight the need for reproductive rights in Morocco.
“There’s still a huge digital divide in Morocco, which we need to be mindful and aware of,” says Benslimane. “But more and more young people have access to digital technologies, and they are digital natives. Because they don’t have access to topics related to sexual education, women’s empowerment and youth empowerment, they are turning to social media to get this information.
“There are so many pages that have been created in Darija (Moroccan Arabic) on different topics like political participation, or breaking typical stereotypes related to Moroccan women. I’m so proud of Moroccan youth for being so creative, resilient, and collaborative.”
Benslimane adds: “This is also when you come to the realisation that there’s a big lack of reasonable awareness on these issues in our educational systems because it’s considered taboo and ‘hshouma’ (shameful), as we say.”
Although the petition has reached more than two thousands signatures in a month, Benslimane laments the lack of reaction and support from Moroccan civil society and social media influencers. “They have a platform of hundreds of thousands of followers and they are silent. The topic is so taboo and controversial that people don’t necessarily want to talk about it because they don’t want to lose their recognition, their fame and their followers. They are totally disengaged.”
“I tried to work with Moroccan organisations but they were not very responsive. There is this lack of dialogue within Moroccan civil society, they don’t coordinate between each other. Also, I feel that they don’t want to make space for us. They don’t take us, young people, seriously. They don’t think that we are competent enough. Our wish is to show that we are capable of really creating concrete change.”
Confronted with the lack of action from political parties and lawmakers, Benslimane is working with international organisations that advance sexual and reproductive health rights.
“In 2014, article 475 of the penal code which enabled rapists to marry their victims was revoked. It happened because the international community and a coalition of feminist organisations put pressure on Morocco after a 14-year old killed herself. This is how change happens. We’re trying to recreate the same scenario.”
“By taking those small advocacy actions in the digital world, we’re calling on the international community to ally to our cause, and make it news so we can bring this debate back to parliament, and pressure our legislators.”
Womens’ rights in Morocco
In recent years Morocco has taken substantial steps towards women’s rights and gender parity in constitutional, family, and criminal law.
The kingdom’s Mudawana (Family Law) was reformed in 2004, securing fundamental rights for Moroccan women, including the right to self-guardianship, divorce, and child custody. Polygamy was declared illegal, and the legal age of marriage was raised from 15 to 18.
The new Constitution, which was established in 2011 after thousands marched across the country demanding political reforms, guarantees equal protection of its laws for both men and women. It also declares, for the first time, Morocco’s adherence to universally recognised human rights, and implements international treaties into domestic law.
The same year, the government dropped some of its reservations against Articles of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimnation against Women (CEDAW), giving the right for a mother to pass on citizenship to her children. CEDAW, which Morocco ratified in 1993, is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It provides the basis for realising equality between women and men through ensuring women’s equal access opportunities in political and public life, education, health and employment.
However, the laws have failed to turn into applicable measures, creating a gap between the legislative framework and the reality, mainly because of gender bias and resistance from judges and police, particularly in rural areas.
“When it comes to women’s rights in Morocco, we can talk about marginalisation on social, economic, and political levels,” says Farah Kanbi, human rights activist and director at Politics4her Africa. “Women are discriminated against in the decision-making process. Only 95 of 395 (24%) parliamentary seats are held by women. The lack of female representation in the legislative branch can be reflected in the lack of advancement of women’s rights, as only women can advocate for women’s rights in a patriarchal society.”
The penal code has been changed several times over the last decades, taking steps towards tackling gender based violence. However, it is inconsistent with the Constitution and doesn’t align with the international treaties Morocco ratified, says Benslimane, who calls the criminal code outdated. It punishes women and girls instead of protecting them, she says.
In the Violence Against Women in Morocco report, Kanbi writes how, for instance, the criminalisation of pre-marital sex hinders girls’ and women’s access to justice in case of rape or revenge porn. Also, it does not offer protection against all forms of violence.
“Women do not have full control over their physical integrity and bodily autonomy,” explains Kanbi. “Marital rape, honour killing, domestic violence and revenge pornography still take place until this moment in Morocco because they are not criminalised. Violence against women, which goes beyond physical violence and includes financial abuse and political and socio-economic violence is a top priority that should be tackled by the government.”
Bringing social and cultural changes
“We are for full reproductive rights, but we can’t go from abortion being criminalised and illegal to full abortion rights. We’re trying to take a step-by-step approach. We have to be realistic and be willing to compromise,” says Benslimane. “But it’s time to change the laws because if we want to change minds, we need to first have judicial and legislative change.”
At the time of the petition launch, Politics4Her has been working on the “Women for leadership” project, teaching twelve young women in Morocco – including refugees and migrants – about reproductive health rights and gender-based violence. “I saw [the petition] as an opportunity to align with the work that I am currently doing because Politics4Her encourages inclusive participation of young women in politics,” Benslimane tells us. “And of course, topics related to sexual and reproductive health rights matter because if we don’t have women representing us, those issues will not be discussed in the policymaking or legislative process.”
Kanbi adds, “If we have more women in politics, people will start to look at women in a different way rather than the socially constructed and agreed-upon norms.If women start to hold more responsibilities within the government and start working to lead change, the image correlating women to domestic work will start to fade.”
“Stereotypes won’t disappear unless people understand how harmful they are. Women need to speak up and break their silence. They have to raise their voices to be heard, and should never hesitate to defend themselves and call for their rights.”