In Morocco, prominent feminist activists and NGOs protested in front of the Rabat court against what they denounce as a lax verdict in a rape case of an 11-year-old child.
The girl, who lives in Tiflet, 66kms east of the country’s capital Rabat, was repeatedly raped by three of her neighbors and gave birth following these assaults.
The accused, a father of three and his two nephews, were condemned in the first instance to 18 to 24 months in prison, a sentence that sparked outrage throughout Moroccan society.
The judges on the case argued that the vulnerable social background of the accused and the fact that they had no criminal record were mitigating factors that justified the relatively lenient sentence. They also did not level the charge of “rape” against the attackers, but rather indecent assault on a minor and abduction on a minor.
The sentence sent shockwaves through Moroccan society, with protesters rapidly gathering in front of the court. Feminist activists and intellectuals also took to social media to condemn the shockingly lenient sentence. They demanded harsher sentences against the attackers, denouncing the first verdict as an “intolerable injustice”. They also called for greater protection of the physical and psychological integrity of women and children.
An appellate court reviewed the first judgment ten days after the beginning of the protests and changed the sentence to 20 years in prison for the main accused and 10 years for his two nephews.
"Without the mobilization of civil society, I don’t think this second verdict would have been possible," says sociologist Soumaya Naamane Guessous.
"Recent history shows that most prison sentences do not cross five years, when the Moroccan Penal Code provides for 10 to 30 years in jail for such crimes."
A 2020 report by the collective Masaktach (I will not stay silent) found that in 80% of the 1169 cases they scrutinized, prison sentences were less than five years.
"We usually find that male judges are reluctant to convict other men and consider that they should not destroy these men and their families," adds Naamane Guessous.
The survivor and her child are now under the care of INSAF, a Casablanca based NGO.
Though DNA testing in court has proved the main accused’s paternity, Moroccan legislation does not obligate him to recognize the child, nor to support him in any way.
In Morocco, children born out of rape and outside of the context of marriage are often left in an administrative limbo, without any formal recognition from the state.
More broadly, while the law technically allows mothers to give their name to their children, they can only do so with the agreement of a male guardian. Such demands rarely succeed because of the social stigma associated with having children out of wedlock.
This recent case has reopened public debate around the status of these children, with activists hoping that case will shift public opinion and push for legal change that will force fathers to recognize and support these children.
For Naamane Guessous: "we cannot have two types of citizens, legitimate and illegitimate. We need to make men assume their responsibilities and force them to support their children."