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Morocco moves a step closer to criminalise child marriage

Constitutional council's report pushes Morocco a step closer to criminalise child marriage
3 min read
08 February, 2024
Last September, Moroccan King Mohammed VI ordered the government to present a new reform of the family code (Moudawana) in the next six months. 
Today, 14% of girls in Morocco are married before their 18th birthday and 1% are married before the age of 15. [Getty]

Amidst a fiery debate over family code reform in Morocco, the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE), a constitutional institution established by the Monarch, has supported the criminalisation of child marriage.

On 5 February, the CESE recommended "accelerating the eradication of child marriage in all its forms through a comprehensive strategy, to preserve the best interests of children and to promote socio-economic development."

The CESE's report was released following a request submitted to the council by the Moroccan Parliament last year.

Although the council's resolution may seem like the bare minimum, it represents a significant push for women's rights activists' fight against child marriage in the North African state, where Islamists continue to argue the perks of the phenomena. 

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Why is child marriage legal in Morocco? 

In 2004, Morocco's family code raised the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, but it introduced a clause allowing judges to give families special dispensation to marry off girls under that age. 

Meanwhile, males are categorically prohibited from marrying before the age of 18. 

According to official figures, judges approved some 13,000 waivers in 2020 alone -- more than half of the total applications. 

Article 16 of the Family Code also stipulates that customary law marriages — marriages sealed with a simple reading of a verse from the Koran alongside two witnesses — are accepted as legal proof of marriage as long as they are judicially declared within five years of the marriage date. 

These clauses have jeopardised the 2004 Family Code's attempt to eliminate child marriage in the country. 

Today, 14% of girls in Morocco are married before their 18th birthday, and 1% are married before the age of 15, according to the international NGO Girls Not Brides. 

UN Women has identified hotspots for child marriage in impoverished rural areas such as Azrou, Midelt, and Beni Mellal. 

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Why do some Islamist figures support child marriage? 

One of the renowned defendants of child marriage in Morocco is Abdellilah Benkirane, Morocco's former prime minister (2012-2016). 

"There are no marriages of minors in Morocco. We have girls aged 16 and 17 who want to get married," said Benkirane, the head of the moderate Islamist party of Justice and Development (PJD, in 2015, as he argued that 16-year-old girls are not minors. 

Last year, he renewed his support for child marriage, arguing that its criminalisation would be equivalent to saying that "our mothers who got married before 17 and 18 years old, it was paedophilia." 

Meanwhile, Al-Adl wa Lihsan group (Justice and Charity), another Islamist group, has also refused the criminalisation of child marriage. Instead, it urged stricter regulations throughout "investigating whoever wants to marry a minor" and ensuring "the minor's consent" to the marriage. 

Specific interpretations of religious stories prompt Islamists' support of child marriage. 

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A new family code to end gender discrimination 

Last September, Moroccan King Mohammed VI ordered the government to present a new reform of the family code (Moudawana) in the next six months. 

Ending child marriage, inequality in inheritance and monogamy are Moroccan women's three key demands for the new Moroccan family code that governs areas of family law such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. 

Currently tasked with conducting consultations and preparing a reform project, the committee is comprised of Minister of Justice Abdellatif Ouahbi and officials from judicial and religious institutions. 

Ultimately, it will be up to King Mohammed VI, president of the Supreme Council of Scholars, the body with a monopoly on religious edicts (fatwas), to decide on the most divisive aspects of the forthcoming reform.