Reaping the Results of Three Decades of Feminist Activism: Constitutional Reforms in Morocco Set Precedent of Institutionalizing Gender Equality

By Lina Abou-Habib 
Executive Director of WLP Lebanon/CRTD.A

Amidst revolts, uncertain futures, the dismantling of theocratic regimes, the emergence of conservative forces and serious threats facing women in the MENA region, the recent changes in Morocco not only herald a positive transformatory process but also highlight the consistency and strength of the independent feminist movement in that country.

 
The first significant gain in the long struggle for the rights of women in Morocco is undoubtedly the radical reform of the family laws in 2004. These reforms: included the principle of shared parental responsibility, regulated marriage, divorce, and child custody in favor of women; recognized women's "invisible" work as economic contributions; and provided women with legal recourse in most aspects of family life.  Gaps of course remained in these reforms, such as the definition of the family, the contentious issue of inheritance and the recognition of full equality between women and men.  This notwithstanding, the process further continued with the subsequent reform of the nationality law in 2007, the lifting of reservations to articles nine and sixteen of CEDAW, and the signing of the Optional Protocol.  This process was also interspersed with significant changes in the criminalization of sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as protection from domestic violence.
 
With the advent of what is now referred to as the Arab Spring, Morocco witnessed lesser street protests compared to other countries.  However, the social unrest in the region, coupled with the reform process that had already started in 2001, accelerated changes toward further inclusion and realization of rights.
 
One such key landmark is undoubtedly the national referendum over the reform of the Constitution which took place in July 2011.
 
The newly approved Constitution by and large responded to the key demands of the feminist movement in Morocco and clearly articulated the following:
Whereas the initial constitution framed equality only within the context of political rights (Article 8), the new Constitution frames equality within the comprehensive definition of human rights, namely political, social, civil, and cultural rights (Article 19);
The new Constitution clearly states that all forms of discrimination are prohibited including, explicitly, gender-based discrimination. 
Article 19 of the new Constitution exhorts the state to make equality a reality through the creation of a specific authority for equality and for the elimination of discrimination.
Article 164 of the new Constitution further defines the mandate and role of this new authority which is framed by the international human rights conventions and their attendant mechanisms.
 
Following the national referendum for Constitutional reforms in July 2011, the National Human Rights Council (NHRC) gained constitutional status.  The NHRC draws its origins from its predecessor, the Consultative Council for Human Rights, a structure that was directly affiliated with the King, and, as the name indicates, was merely consultative in nature.
 
The NHRC on the other hand enjoys a Constitutional and independent status, as well as a juridical mandate to monitor human rights violations and promote women’s rights as human rights. The independence and authority of this Council reflects a long time demand of the women’s and human rights movement, and is in line with the changes that have been taking place since 2001.  In fact, the Council and its members enjoy immunity, allowing them to act on any issue they deem relevant and in violation of human and women’s rights.  Of the roughly forty current members more than 40% are women.  Members represent various sectors of society including women’s and civil society organizations.  Rabéa Naciri, the former President of WLP Morocco/Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc, and a long-time activist for women’s rights and equality, is a nominated member of NHRC.
 
Naciri explains that the role of the NHRC is not only to receive and process complaints in relation to human rights and liberties, but also take proactive action and immediately intervene in case of a violation. As such, according to Naciri, "the Commission need not wait to receive a complaint, it can take immediate action and intervene in any human rights matter.  This is a major advance and achievement.  We can act in anticipation of a potential violation and take action. The Commission is also empowered to write its own independent annual reports to the Parliament.  We are at the same time empowered to receive and process complaints, launch our own investigations, and review laws and legislations and address their application of human rights principles."  This, according to Naciri is "a remarkable advance, especially given the near gender-parity in the Commission, its independence and extended prerogatives."  
 
Most importantly, the NHRC is mandated to ensure the implementation of the clauses of Article 164 of the new Constitution, notably through facilitating the creation of the new authority for parity and the prohibition of all forms of discrimination.  To this end, the NHRC is engaging in a dialogue regarding the new law that shall regulate the authority and its relation to the NHRC.  According to Naciri, this entails, “the launch of a national dialogue over the new authority and the laws regulating it.  This entails engaging in substantial dialogue with all sectors of society on the fundamental issues of gender equality, human rights, substantive equality, and non-discrimination.” The Council is also concurrently preparing to launch a similar debate regarding the establishment of parallel councils, namely the National Council for Family and Children and the National Council for Youth and Civil society.
 
Naciri feels very positive about the NHRC council.  She believes, "the upcoming effort to create a sub-commission dedicated to equality and the prohibition of discrimination will be a major entry point for current and future feminist advocacy in Morocco."
 
Ultimately, Naciri believes:
 
The current context is laden with new tools, opportunities, and tangible mechanisms for women and feminist organizations.  It is now time for us to review our strategies and make sure that we fully hold these new institutions and tools accountable.  Our work over the past decades was systematic but focused on specific issues, laws, and areas of concerns.  I believe that we can now move to a holistic approach and work on women’s rights as human rights.  This is a new opportunity as well as a new challenge for us.…Morocco is now going through a real transition that presents serious potential for an inclusive democracy. According to Articles 14 and 15 of the new Constitution, all women and men citizens have the right to taking legislative initiatives and submit petitions.  This means that the new Constitution recognizes women and men as active citizens and also recognizes the role of civil society.  This is totally new and it is up to us now to make use of these positive changes.
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