In the last decade, the social and legal framework surrounding sexual and reproductive health in Morocco has seen a profound transformation. The reform of the Family Code or Moudawana in 2004 endows Moroccan women with groundbreaking rights that were previously unheard of. Its predecessor was based on conservative Islamic family law traditions, which included provisions such as the wife’s obedience to her husband and the husband’s right of repudiation [1, 2]. The new Moudawana, however, stipulates that spouses have equal rights and duties in the family, establishing a right to divorce for women, eliminating the requirement for women to have the consent of a marital guardian (wali) to marry and granting women more rights in the negotiation of marriage contracts a. Also, in an attempt to bring the occurrence of child and forced marriages to a halt, the minimum age of marriage for girls was raised from 15 to 18 b. Nevertheless, in the years following the adoption of the Moudawana, questions were raised by several NGO’s and human rights groups concerning its application, especially in the area of child marriage. Although the minimum age for girls was increased, the new Family Code does present the opportunity to ask a judge to authorize marriage before the age of 18c. Few of the applicants are maled. This loophole is increasingly being used to marry off girls, often as young as 15.
Effectively, with the new Family Code, child marriage was placed under control of the magistrates. In order to grant a child marriage, the law requires not only a medical and psychological exam of the child, but also a social inquiry into the reasons for marriage e. Yet, despite the fact that underage marriage should remain an exception, it seems to almost have become the rule.
The rates of child marriage have risen steadily in the years following the introduction of the new Moudawana. In 2007, 33.596 underage marriages were allowed to take place . Figures released by the Ministry of Justice for the year 2010 reveal that 41.098 child marriages were authorized. Compared to 2009, this represents a 23,59% increase . With the judiciary approving over 90% of petitions, the practice of child marriage in Morocco is effectively upheldf.
Forced marriage is recognised as a human rights abuse, violating a number of international human rights norms, including the rights to freely enter into marriage, and to bodily and sexual integrity. As early as 1948, the right to free and full consent to a marriage was stipulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rightsg, acknowledging that consent cannot be free and full when one of the parties is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision, as is the case with child marriage . The most widely ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as anyone under the age of 18 yearsh, based on ideas of universalised notions of maturity . Child marriage is explicitly mentioned in a number of international human rights instruments, most notably in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which states that the “betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect”i. However, many countries legally allow young people between the ages of 16–18 to marry with parental consent, which raises questions regarding the concepts of childhood and marriage across cultures . This brings to light the difficulties in defining forced marriage and child marriage. While child marriage is generally included in the scope of forced marriage [9, 11], it should be noted that the primary concern lies in the incidences of forced child marriage, where explicit or implicit pressure is exerted. Research shows that young people under 18 are at a higher risk of forced marriage . Most of these marriages are set up by parents and girls rarely meet or get to know their future husband before the wedding . In a forced marriage, at least one of both parties is coerced into a marriage against their will and under duress. In contrast, an arranged marriage is characterized by the fact that parents or relatives introduce the spouses but both parties give their full and free consent to the union. Therein lies the difference with forced marriage . However, in practice it can become difficult to accurately determine at what point emotional pressure becomes great enough to implicate genuine force in order to distinguish between forced and arranged marriages [15, 16].
The overall prevalence of forced marriages is difficult to estimate, as victims rarely come forward. The practice is mostly hidden and incidences of forced marriage go underreported . Figures for child marriage are easier to come by, seeing that the spouses’ ages at the date of marriage, allows for the numbers of child marriages to be quantified. This offers an objective benchmark to assess the evolution with regards to girl’s and young women’s rights.
Forced marriage and child marriage have considerable detrimental health and social consequences. These unions hinder educational development and limit opportunities, seriously affecting their economic status. Quite often it exposes them to a lifetime of domestic violence and abuse as they lack standing and power within their households . Several studies confirm wide age gaps between younger married women and their spouses. This age gap clearly creates unequal power relations between the young bride and her older and more experienced husband, resulting in husbands having total control over sexual relations and decision-making . Since most brides are socially conditioned not to question the authority of their husbands, they are often unable to use contraception or to plan their families. The combined effect of these factors may also make brides more likely to tolerate partner violence and not leave abusive husbands .
Forced marriage and child marriage in particular bring about a wide range of health consequences, of which girls and young women bear the greatest burden. Forced sexual intercourse can lead to gynaecological problems. Associations have been found between coerced first sexual intercourse and genital tract symptoms . Studies also report significant associations between sexual abuse and sexually transmitted infections, bacterial vaginosis, abnormal vaginal discharge, and psychological and mental disorders . Due to their bodies being not fully developed, mothers under the age of 18 years experience higher rates of maternal mortality and higher risk of obstructed labour, postpartum haemorrhage and sepsis [13, 22, 23]. Pregnancy related deaths are among the leading causes of mortality for 15–19 year old girls worldwide . Those who give birth under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die as compared to women in their early 20s . Young women and girls forced into marriage are additionally exposed to a greater risk of HIV infection . Research suggests that in some settings 15- to 19-year old married girls have higher rates of HIV infection than their sexually active unmarried peers [26–28]. However counterintuitive this seems, Clark et al.  suggest that married girls in any setting may be more vulnerable to HIV infection because, in trying to prove their fertility, girls have high-frequency, unprotected sexual intercourse with their spouse. The husbands are often much older men, which increases their chances of having contracted HIV through previous sexual partnerships or polygamous unions [13, 28].
Considering the levels of physical and psychological abuse frequently associated with forced marriage, the issue is perceived as a form of violence against women . Recent figures from a study conducted by the Moroccan High Commission for Planning (HCP) reveal that women who married without consent are almost three times more likely to experience partner violence, including sexual violence, in the domestic household. Moreover, younger married women, from 18–24 years, experience a higher rate of violence than married women between 35–39 years . Effects of violence during pregnancy include delayed prenatal care, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), vaginal and cervical infections, kidney infections, miscarriages and abortions, premature labour and foetal distress . Another study conducted by a national network of counselling centres in Morocco indicates that minor girls are increasingly experiencing gender-based violence, of which sexual violence figures most prominently at 28%, compared to physical violence in 21% of the cases .
Concerns are rising in Morocco over these rates of violence against women and the swelling numbers of child marriages. The goal of this research study is to explore perspectives of a wide range of professionals on factors that contribute to the occurrence of child and forced marriage in Morocco.