FEZ, Morocco (WOMENSENEWS)--When news broke last week of 16-year-old Amina Filali's suicide, a group of women's rights advocates gathered here knew they were too late. But the legal resource they were being trained to use might just help save the lives of other women some day.
The group of about 20 people, half of them women, had come from around the country to spend five days learning how to use a public online database of Moroccan court decisions related to women's rights.
Filali's March 10 suicide in the northern city of Larache, near Tangiers, spurred anger and frustration among those at the gathering and talk of introducing a comprehensive violence against women law and swift legal reform of the country's penal code.
Article 475 of that code allows a "kidnapper" to marry his victim if she is a minor. The marriage restores her and her family's honor and is a way of avoiding prosecution. Filali's father told a Moroccan newspaper that when he reported his daughter's rape last year, court officials advised him of the marriage option. The legal age of marriage in Morocco is 18, unless there are "special circumstances."
Her death has mobilized women's rights groups nationally and internationally. Several hundred activists demonstrated outside Morocco's parliament in Rabat this past weekend to demand the repeal of the sexual violence law. A Facebook page called "We are all Amina Filali" has more than 2,400 members, an online petition calls for an end to article 475 and there have been countless tweets on Twitter, many with the hashtag #RIPAmina.
"We hope the database will help change things and put an end to misdeeds like the 16- year-old who committed suicide," said workshop participant Zahira Bouchait, president of the Tafoukt Souss Association for Women's Development, based in the southwestern city of Agadir.
Global Rights, the Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization spearheading the project, hopes monitoring these cases and making them available will help strengthen women's rights in the country and lead to laws more compliant with international human rights conventions.
Countrywide Cases Collected
Nine core committees composed of Global Rights' local partners and allies have been collecting cases from their regions for the past year.
Stephanie Willman Bordat, Maghreb regional director at Global Rights, said the database is the first of its kind in the Arabic-speaking world and is expected to launch this summer.
Bordat doesn't know how many decisions have been compiled so far, though she said most cases are from this past decade. Many of the cases, she added, are related to divorce and violence against women.
The database is inspired by the Gender Justice Observatory, launched in 2001 by Women's Link Worldwide, based in Colombia and Spain. It now monitors court decisions in 52 countries.
Glenys de Jesus, director of the Gender Justice Observatory, said this model also may benefit Morocco. "It could provide valuable information on how courts implement and interpret human rights with regard to women in Arab-speaking countries. This would allow for evaluations on the extent of the gap, if any, between rights guaranteed on paper and rights actually afforded to individuals in reality," she said in an e-mail interview.
The database may also encourage the replication of positive court decisions. Bouchait, of the Tafoukt Souss Association for Women's Development, said Agadir has more women-positive cases than other regions.
"Acknowledging a woman's contribution to a marriage's wealth, this concept stemmed from the south," said Bouchait. "We want to make such progressive concepts to be generalized to other regions of Morocco."
The community property practice, called kad wa siaya, grants a woman half of the property accumulated during a marriage, even if she didn't work outside the home. This regional customary law is more generous than the country's 2004 amended Family Code, which doesn't acknowledge women's unpaid work.
The Family Code does allow a prenuptial contract for property, but such contracts aren't common. A study in the rural Gharb region, cited in a 2010 paper by Souad Eddouada of Ibn Tofail University in Kenitra, found that out of 400 marriages that had ended in the region, none had the contract.
The Global Rights website, which still has to be named, is being funded through the Dutch embassy. In addition to court decisions, it will offer tips for lawyers to creatively litigate cases to promote women's rights, a chat forum and news and updates. Visitors to the site also will be able to send in court decisions of their own.
Aside from those by the Supreme Court, Moroccan court decisions are often scattered and difficult to find, making it hard to track and compare how cases are being decided across the country, Bordat said. Negative decisions can go unnoticed, while those that uphold women's rights may be inaccessible to judges and lawyers who could have taken advantage of them.
"The database allows us to access different rulings related to women's cases, be it positive or negative ones, in order to analyze them and to highlight pitfalls, gaps and irregularities of the rulings," said Mariam Zemouri, president of the Tawaza Association for Women's Advocacy in Martil, a coastal town in northern Morocco.
Bordat added that the long term goal is for the better treatment of women by the justice system overall.
"By having a public tool it adds spotlight and pressure. It will help bring transparency and public access to information, and judges will be held accountable for how they apply the law," she said. "Hopefully it will be a deterrent and make them think twice before issuing an egregious decision."
Juhie Bhatia is reporting from Morocco on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP), an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C. She's the managing editor at Women's eNews.