Changing how we talk about survivors of gender-based violence can help solve the problem.
Rabat – How people speak about gender-based violence (GBV) impacts how society deals with such important issues in Morocco and across the world. That is the message of the Oslo Women’s Rights Initiative’s (OWRI) new #FreeToBe campaign. The Norwegian organization, which brings together individuals and groups concerned with women’s rights, aims to change the narrative.
OWRI is addressing a key element in the continuing struggle for women’s rights. The initiative focuses on countries where gender-based violence and women’s rights violations are most prevalent. By creating space for activists to speak out on government policies and strategies, the initiative hopes to change how we speak about gender-based violence.
In order to assess the Moroccan context, Morocco World News spoke to Stephanie Willman Bordat, founding partner at Rabat-based international non-profit organization Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA). She explained how changing the narrative on gender-based violence is particularly important in Morocco’s context.
Changing the narrative
The OWRI’s #FreeToBe campaign calls 2020 a historic year for gender equality, with much work still ahead. The campaign aims to “flip the script” on how people talk about — and thus approach — gender-based violence.
Based on the principle that “all anyone wants is to be free,” the campaign urges people to reconsider narratives on domestic violence, female gential mutilation, child marriage, mandatory veiling, homophobia, and sexual harrasment.
In order to address these important issues, the OWRI’s campaign calls for the abolition of laws and norms that enable violence.
The struggle for women’s rights is alive and well, with several horrific examples of gender-based violence fueling the movement in North Africa. Oppressive regimes in Algeria and Egypt, in particular, continue to ignore violence against women while restricting their rights and limiting their ability to fight back.
The prevalent issue of gender-based violence in Algeria became a prominent element of national discussion after the brutal rape and murder of 19-year-old Chaima. A young girl was violated and murdered by a man who she had lodged sexual assault complaints against three years prior. Police did nothing with her claims and the man in question was able to strike again, this time resulting in her tragic and unnecessary death.
The case outraged Algerians and brought the issue of gender-based violence into the spotlight. Social media became an outlet for GBV survivors and supporters of women’s rights to highlight the continuing mistreatment of and violence against women in Algerian society. Algeria still has much work to do as evidenced by its new constitution, which barely mentions women.
In Egypt, overt government oppression against women, mixed with horrific examples of gender-based violence, have similarly sparked national debate. Conservative values have clashed with Egypt’s budding #MeToo movement. The state continues to use morality laws to prosecute and imprison women for perceived “immorality” on social media.
Egypt jailed two well-known TikTok influencers for two years and issued fines of $18,730 for “violating family values and principles” in July of this year.
Women who report rape still risk prosecution simply for admitting to having had pre-marital sex, their lack of consent aside. The outrage over such practices is creating a confrontation between traditional conservatives and a growing chorus of women and allies decrying oppression.
With Cairo being one of the world’s most dangerous places for women, Egypt still has a long way to go in order to adequately combat gender-based violence and expand women’s rights.
Morocco’s 2018 law
Moroccan efforts to combat gender-based violence primarily materialized in 2018 when the government approved law 103-13 on combating violence against women. While the law realized some progress, it failed to address fundamental factors that continue to produce gender-based violence, according to MRA’s Stephanie Willman Bordat.
Years of lobbying and participation by organizations such as MRA led to revisions in criminal law but failed to address some of the core issues. “It’s not a violence against women law, it was just some minor reforms to the criminal code,” Willman Bordat stated.
The 2018 law failed to change laws on sexual violence and rape, including marital rape. Women are still required to present physical evidence that the sexual act was against their will. Because Moroccan law still forbids premarital sexual relations, women face potential prosecution when reporting rape, as doing so admits sexual activity that would be illegal if deemed consensual.
Women hesitate to report such crimes because of a lack of direct protection for those who report gender-based violence. Furthermore, Willman Bordat explained that the law does not provide services for women such as healthcare, legal aid, or shelter following gender-based violence and fails to instruct healthcare professionals, police, and other public actors on how to respond to such cases.
Plugging the gaps
“As a result of all of this, the majority of women don’t report violence to the authorities,” Willman Bordat told MWN, emphasizing that “only three percent of women who suffer rape or sexual assault report it to the authorities.” Women are often dependent on local women’s rights organizations to receive proper support because there is not a strong response from public actors.
Local organizations are left to provide personal support for women who have suffered such crimes. They accompany victims and provide essential services such as counseling and legal support as well as helping them navigate the system. Strengthening the response on the local level has become the main place for collaboration and support.
Local NGOs provide women with essential services that the 2018 law failed to implement, according to Willman-Bordat. NGOs in turn depend on organizations such as Willman Bordat’s MRA to help fund and supply their efforts.
After 10 years of advocacy that resulted in a weak law, NGOs now focus more on plugging the gaps in the system in order to provide women with the support they need, MRA’s founder told MWN. Politicians were mostly absent during the vote on the 2018 law. “They didn’t play their role,” Willman Bordat said.
Onus on Women
The OWRI #FreeToBe campaign’s efforts to change the narrative are highly relevant in Morocco, according to Willman Bordat. “All of the work against violence against women is focused on women” instead of including men and society at large. Women continue to face questioning about their motives, what they wear or how they act, when talking about the causes of gender-based violence.
“Women are being held responsible for causing the violence and for finding a solution to stop it,” Willman Bordat explained. With the role of women in society strengthened in economic terms, women receive blame for not leaving abusive partners, not actively avoiding cyber harassment, or not having enough economic independence to be able to leave.
“That’s the dominant narrative in Morocco that we feel needs to be changed,” she stated. “It is the man’s behavior that causes such crimes, not the woman’s.” Changing this narrative requires a behavioral change for men. The question should not be “why didn’t she leave him?” The question instead should focus on “why did he beat her?”
Willman Bordat stated that “it’s not the individual woman’s role to find a solution, this is the government’s responsibility.” Under international human rights law and the Moroccan constitution, the government has a responsibility to protect women, prevent violence, investigate and punish perpetrators, and provide women with reparation for the harm they have suffered.
As long as Morocco continues to criminalize premarital sexual relations, women will continue to fear reporting gender-based violence, according to Willman Bordat. “It’s preventing the 2018 law from being implemented properly,” she explained. “Any women that are a victim of violence from someone they are not married to, can be prosecuted themselves if they report rape.”
Girls with boyfriends, she said, are at great risk of harassment, blackmail, or violence from their partners, despite these acts being illegal in Morocco. There are girls in prison because they reported their partners’ crimes, prosecuted because in reporting non-consensual violations of their body, they in effect admitted to having premarital sex, Willman Bordat told MWN.
A loosening of morality in law, similar to the UAE’s recent unexpected decision to allow cohabitation of unmarried people, could help resolve a problem that continues to further victimize women who have suffered sexual assault.
Stopping gender-based violence
Each person can individually help stop gender-based violence by considering how they speak about violence against women. Detecting and putting a halt to narratives that blame the woman instead of the perpetrator can help make a step in the right direction, according to Willman Bordat.
Beyond personal behavior, people can help fight violence against women by donating their time or skills to the many local women’s rights NGOs, according to Willman Bordat. NGOs are always in need of volunteer lawyers, doctors, or those who want to accompany and support individual women.
“On a larger level we have to find ways to hold local and national government accountable for their response,” she explained. “Go to your local municipal council meeting and speak up,” Willman Bordat recommended, in order to realize a broader transformation in behavior.
The media, similarly, has a role to play. “The media needs to make a shift in how they report on violence against women.” The media needs to help shape the public conversation and help keep officials accountable, something MRA emphasizes in an upcoming project. The media needs to move away from its current sex-oriented sensationalist reporting.
In order to significantly reduce gender-based violence we need to stop blaming women and reflect on how we tell stories on these crimes. “There is this exploitative voyeuristic type of focus” that needs to change in order to shape the public conversation, Willman Bordat affirmed.
Gender-based violence is “rooted in power and control,” #FreeToBe asserts. Words, too, have power.