combat violence in MoroccoThere is a Moroccan village in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains where a group of women is staking their claim to a portion of the nation’s economy. With the support of a government initiative, these women have formed a civil society organization (CSO) known simply as, The Association. These women took part in jumpstarting the production of sheep and honey within the region. This is an effort to combat violence in Morocco.

The Benefits of CSOs

In May 2017, Dr. Beth Shirley, a professor of technical and science communication at Montana State University, participated in a research trip to Morocco. The trip involved the study of how CSOs are designed to improve the lives of women in rural communities. The researchers engaged with members of the Association and learned about how they communicate and organize themselves in a semiliterate environment. Also, how a CSO manages the effects of climate change on their agricultural prospects.

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dr. Shirley said, “Improving the lives of women like this actually reduces violence and terrorism.” Additionally, the women in The Association are contributing to, “the reduction of violence against women more than Morocco’s progressive legislation.”

There is a long history that has led to this moment in Morocco and women in the High Atlas Mountains stand at the forefront of the fight for rights and against violence.

The History of the Women’s Rights Movement in Morocco

Following Morocco’s independence from France in the late 1950s, there was a push for sweeping legal and cultural reforms. During the women’s rights movement, artistic talents were often used to renegotiate the status of cultural identity in a post-Colonial Morocco. Not long after this, women began to shape contemporary politics by forming unions and other democratic associations and holding positions in the ruling government.

A couple of decades later, the Arab Spring began and shifted the dynamic of the pro-democracy and women’s movements in Morocco. This led to radical reforms such as the right to marry without permission from a male guardian, the right to divorce their partner and the right to maintain custody of children after a divorce. The legal marriage age also changed for the better. Once the legal age was 15, now it is 18.

This progressive legislation emboldened more women to invest their time and resources into their society and attempt to combat violence in Morocco. The women of the High Atlas Mountains were a part of this trailblazing class of women. It was in 2012, one year after the Arab Spring, that they formed their Association and began to improve the lives of rural women.

The story of the Association is a testament to the lengths that Morocco has gone to become a progressive Arabian ally. Sadly, there are still many loopholes in the legal framework that fail to protect women from sexual harassment and assault.

Violence Against Women and Terrorism

In this sense, Morocco finds itself stuck in an awkward position when it comes to the protection of women’s rights. This is because the policies are progressive enough to anger religious extremists yet lax enough to condone violence against women exercising their rights. This thorny reality has allowed terrorism to propagate in Morocco and neighboring nations like Algeria for the last decade.

At a U.N. Forum in New York City, Justine Coulidiati Kiélem, president of the G5 Sahel Women’s Platform, stated that it’s critical for women to be allowed to stop terrorism. Kiélem said, “They [Moroccan government] sometimes spend money on the wrong priorities. They need to spend money on where there can be a good impact — supporting women.”

The Moroccan government answered this call by implementing policies like the Hakkaoui law. The Hakkaoui Law is in place to combat violence in Morocco. It criminalizes any act of harassment, aggression or sexual exploitation against women. Other supportive laws incentivize women-led programs like the Association. These reforms, paired with a robust counterterrorism strategy, have led to dramatic successes. According to the United States Bureau of Counterterrorism, “There were no terrorist incidents reported in Morocco in 2019.”

Some say that this fact is proof that the Hakkaoui law mitigates violence against women. However, advocates for women’s rights believe the measures taken have not been enough. For instance, 40% of women between the ages of 18 and 64 experience violence, with more than half of those acts committed by their husbands.

Dr. Shirley said, “During my time in Morocco, I didn’t witness or experience any violence, but it does happen, most often behind closed doors.” While rates of violence are going down, the law does not go far enough. Al Jazeera reports that “the legislation does not explicitly outlaw marital rape or spousal violence and does not provide a precise definition of domestic violence, leaving women vulnerable.”

A Long Path Forward

Dr. Shirley recalled a statement from one of the Moroccan women in her study: “She said, ‘I would like to see the women be able to travel more, to think for themselves and make their own decisions and be more independent.’” The Association gives women in this rural village the power to be autonomous — to make the choices that they want to make for themselves. But, this effort could not be done without their collective participation in the movement. On their own, they might not be heard, but together, they speak loudly as one. Together they can combat violence in Morocco.

Morocco is on the brink of a transformative societal shift. The policies in place have to extend to all Moroccan women in both rural and urban communities. Making these changes not only grants women protection and the ability to participate in the economy but also sets new standards for what is acceptable and what is not in a civil society.

Women engage in small acts of resistance every day by exercising their right to protest, by engaging in a collective discourse and by educating members of their community. Moroccan women like those living in the High Atlas Mountains are laying the foundation for the path forward through economic participation. With the right type of legal pressure, advocates may find a way to light the fire that will create a transformative shift forward and combat violence in Morocco.

– Matthew Hayden
Photo: Flickr

Arab Spring
In 2010, the first of a series of protests and uprisings that would sweep across several countries took place. The Arab Spring, as it became known, began in Tunisia and spread to fellow nations such as Egypt and Libya. The purpose of this was to restructure these governments and bring about cultural liberation. In Tunisia and Egypt, uprisings successfully overthrew the government. With the old regimes dismantled, people believed that democracy would prosper in the region. In Libya specifically, citizens overthrew the government, causing the state to devolve into an ongoing civil war. Other states have seen more positive results.

No Absolute Victories

Many have considered Tunisia successful in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In 2013, Tunisia passed a law with the intent of exposing government abuse and holding the abusers accountable. It founded the Truth and Dignity Commission in order to handle such cases by 2014. Over the course of four years, the commission opened 62,720 cases and held 49,654 private interviews. Finally, in May 2019, the commission began passing cases through 13 special courts.

However, Tunisia’s commission was not the first of its kind. It followed in the footsteps of several others before it, as seen in Chile and South Africa. When the commission’s motion to review government abuse cases ended, several key figures returned to power in 2014. People construed this as a step backward from the Arab Spring with the return of earlier members of government resulting in a political atmosphere hostile to past reflection. While government abuses are less common than they were prior to 2010, such societal issues continue to occur. Unreformed laws from the old regime continue to jail vulnerable people without free-speech protections.

Poverty in Conflict

Poverty and unequal distribution of employment opportunities helped precipitate the uprisings of the Arab Spring. The income gap across the population was so severe that poverty all but completely swallowed up the middle class. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who had endured constant harassment from law enforcement and struggled to make a livable wage, set himself on fire in front of the governor’s offices. This act brought the Arab Spring across Tunisia and immortalized Bouazizi as a symbol of the revolution.

In the case of the Arab Spring, conflict was a means for the people to bring about the changes they wanted to see in their countries. However, even when the long-term consequences were to the people’s benefit, the immediate aftermath of the uprising had its issues. Poverty makes an area more susceptible to conflict and war by undermining and weakening government institutions, overloading welfare services and diminishing economic performance. When conflict breaks out, the poor are often most vulnerable. Welfare goods and services often go toward the war effort, causing agriculture to suffer as a result of land destruction and security measures for protecting the elite.

In December 2010, a largely impoverished population overthrew the Tunisian government in a violent conflict that killed 338 people. The people dismantled the government, leading to the dissolution of political police and the relinquishing of assets back to the people. Despite this occurrence, the Tunisian people faced an uphill battle, with the need to restore and maintain normalcy remaining.

The International Labour Organization (ILO)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) emerged in 1919 in a partnership effort to set labor standards and develop policies intended to help people work in respectable conditions. Upon identifying the income gap in Tunisia as a large contributor to starting Arab Spring, the ILO works closely with local organizations. It strives to provide more lucrative work opportunities for the people. Specifically, the ILO initiated a project that will install a covered market in Sidi Bouzid, the sight of Bouazizi’s self-immolation. This program will ensure that vendors may gather to sell their wares in better conditions.

The ILO partnered with the E.U. to create the Programme to Support the Development of Underprivileged Areas (AZD), which teaches locals how to farm. The program has educated almost 100 people to prune and graft fruit trees, as well as to transport their crops to the market effectively. This organization does not limit itself to agriculture; the ILO serves also in teaching technical skills to women. As a result, increased numbers of women have the ability to self-provide and are becoming empowered in society.

Work programs will not solve all of the issues Tunisia’s been grappling with for the past decade. The country must still address issues of government corruption, regional stability and the rate of poverty. In the meantime, however, such programs help in returning some of the power back to the people – another holdover perhaps, from the Arab Spring.

Catherine Lin
Photo: Flickr

 
Tunisia stands as the only Arab country to have undergone democratization due to the Arab Spring protests that shook the region in the 2010s. Fueled by widespread poverty and a low standard of living, along with many other factors, the nearly month-long campaign of civil disobedience led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. However, installing a functioning democracy has not alleviated all of the problems that Tunisians faced pre-revolution.

The Jasmine Revolution

In December of 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a Sidi Bouzid fruit vendor whose goods had recently been confiscated by the local authority, self-immolated outside of the local governor’s office. His sentiments echoed amongst many frustrated with poverty in Tunisia, corruption and the suppression of freedoms. Leading up to the revolution, an increasing number of middle-class citizens expressed dissatisfaction with their living standards. Despite an approximate 7% increase in GDP per capita from 2008 to 2010, the percentage of the country’s middle class that rated themselves satisfied with their current and future prospects dropped from 24% to 14%. Due to other factors such as government corruption, which is not accurately reflected by metrics like GDP, Tunisians felt as if they had little to gain from their country’s economic growth. As a result of these factors, many Tunisians took to the streets soon after Bouazizi’s defiance act.

As riots escalated and protestors were dying under live fire from police, President Ben Ali appeared on national television and made some concessions, reducing food prices and internet usage restrictions. These remarks proved too little too late, however, and the protests continued. By January 14, state media reported the dissolution of Ben Ali’s regime and the establishment of legislative elections. As unrest continued, Ben Ali fled the country. While new leadership took the reformed government’s reins, unrest continued as many of these new politicians were once members of Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally. Eventually, Mohammed Ghannouchi, the acting prime minister, announced several figures from other parties in the interim government. He also reemphasized the new government’s pledged efforts to maintain economic prosperity and freer speech. Eventually, the Democratic Constitutional Rally dissolved in the face of continued protests over the inclusion of politicians from the old regime. These reforms within the Tunisian government stood as one of the major catalysts for the Arab Spring protests, a series of demonstrations across the Arab world that demanded alterations to many standing regimes.

Fundamental Changes?

While the Tunisian government changed drastically in the face of civil uprising, Tunisian citizens still face some of the issues that plagued them prior. Socially, there has been continued strife between Islamism and secularism in the country, with violence spreading throughout the country in 2012 regarding the connections between religion and government. While secular parties have slightly outpaced Islamist parties, there have been problems with fundamentalist violence both domestically and abroad—Tunisians have joined terrorist organizations such as ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Lybia, making up large percentages of their foreign recruits. Additionally, terrorist groups have staged attacks on Tunisian soil, attacking institutions such as museums and resorts.

Economic troubles have also challenged Tunisians—since 2011, nearly 100,000 highly skilled workers and professionals have migrated out of the country. Despite the changes in government, unemployment is still a significant issue. Nearly 23% of university graduates were unemployed right before the onset of the revolution. That figure has since risen to 29%. Government corruption and protracted bureaucracy have done less than initially desired in helping the Tunisian middle and lower classes. Unfortunately, some Tunisians have started to doubt the new government’s effectiveness, with only 46% saying that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government” in 2018, dropping from 71% in 2013. Moreover, there has been some support from the international community in alleviating these issues.

The International Labour Organization

A wing of the United Nations, the International Labour Organization has devoted resources towards alleviating some of the poverty in Tunisia and societal issues facing Tunisians. Some initiatives include construction projects, such as a covered market in Sidi Bouzid. These initiatives provide vendors more favorable conditions to sell their goods and provide construction workers with employment. In Regueb, a village near Sidi Bouzid, the ILO implemented the Programme to Support the Development of Underprivileged Areas, providing around 100 individuals with agricultural skills. Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, the Tunisian Minister of Social Affairs, has endorsed the collaboration of local organizations and the ILO in improving the conditions of Tunisian citizens.

Many challenges face Tunisians in the near future in alleviating the societal and economic issues that stand before the country. However, the success of Tunisians in standing for a reformed government inspired generations across the world. With support from the international community and dedication within the country, a bright future may lie ahead in alleviating poverty in Tunisia.

– Samuel Levine
Photo: Flickr