Morocco’s caravan of hope and the struggle to end child marriage

This month the UK government will be hosting its first ever Girl Summit in a bid to mobilise domestic and global efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) within a generation. This isn’t going to be easy- given the wide scale occurrence of these practises and the economic and societal pressures that continue to undermine gender equality in so many countries. Even in developed nations such as the UK, these practises still occur in clandestine.

Despite these challenges to change, there hasn’t been a better time to host a Girl Summit.  More than even before, people are aware of what’s happening to young girls and want to see action to issues that are now rightfully viewed as a global problem.

Initiatives are already taking place. The horrific impact of FGM has been well documented by human rights groups and is now being hotly debated in UK’s Parliament after a recent report claimed that as many as 170,000 girls were forced to have the procedure in Britain.  The arrest and prosecution of a NHS doctor for the crime has added further weight to the debate to end a practise which puts nearly three million girls and women at risk each year around the world.

Early age marriage is effecting an even larger population of girls. According to the United Nations, about 14 million girls get married every year before they reach 18. If nothing changes, that number is expected to increase to 15 million a year by 2030. And like FGM, this isn’t an occurrence that is only happening in far-away villages in remote parts of the world. It’s also happening to  children in affluent countries like Britain.

This raises the question of what can be done to end this practise? Especially in those aforementioned rural villages where child marriage is common?  How will a UK backed summit influence change in such remote areas?  Setting a global agenda is vital but a lot work is happening at a grassroots level that is gaining traction and actually working.  A good example is the Caravan Project in Morocco, which was founded in 2008 by Najat Ikhich, a prominent women’s activist who also set up a charity called YTTO to support victims of gender-based violence.

The caravan initiative is the first of its kind. It brings together a team of doctors, lawyers, social workers, and child carers and takes them to rural areas across Morocco in a caravan. The villages visited by the caravan are so remote that Najat and her team must park their vehicles and walk several kilometres to complete their journey since the villages are beyond the reach of roads or infrastructure.

Najat doesn’t mind the difficult commute. ‘I see every trip I make in the caravan as an adventure. I am always excited because I feel like I am doing something that will change things for the better. ’

She stresses that the journey isn’t the hard part. The real work begins once the team reaches the village.  Najat has to win the trust of the local community and to get them to accept the services brought to them-which are often greatly needed.  They include medical check-ups and advice on health as well as legal awareness among community members, particularly women, on issues relating to family law, including minimum age for marriage, inheritance rights, and polygamy.

 

‘These are places that are cut off from the rest of the country. People don’t even know the laws of Morocco,’ said Najat. ‘We’re here to educate them.’

 

In respects to womens’ rights, Morocco fares better than many neighbouring countries, thanks in large part to a strong women’s movement that dates back to Morocco’s independence from France.  Reforms have taken place, including amendments to the country’s Moudawana, -the official family code that decrees the roles and relationships between men and women within the family.

 

The reformed  Moudawana grants men and women equal rights within the family. Husbands and wives also have equal rights in house management, family planning, children upbringing, and legal cohabitation. The legal minimum age for marriage for both men and women is now 18 years instead of 15.  Special cases of marriage under that age now require permission from a judge. Furthermore, the free consent of both spouses is now required by law and women no longer need permission from a male guardian to marry.

 

Enforcing these practises is the ultimate struggle, particularly in poor communities.  ‘The biggest challenge is the conservative opinions of men,’ explains Najat. ‘They don’t want change because they are scared of losing power. So I change their views by pointing out how much more power a community will have if women can contribute to the economics of the village.  I also tell them about the rights of human beings, not just the rights of women.  They get that more than anything else-they feel included in the debate.’

 

Getting women and girls on board is also vital to the success of the project. When they reach the villages, consultation rooms are set up in large tents where Najat and her social workers hold confidential conversations with women seeking advice and support. Community debates around issues linked to women’s empowerment and child marriage are also encouraged.

 

The project is working.  Child marriage has dropped significantly in many of the target villages. One village saw a reduction from 450 underage marriages in 2010 to just 50 underage marriages in 2012. Local contacts in other villages report that fewer families are accepting early marriage as an option for their daughters and a lot more girls are learning to read and write.

 

The success of the project has reinforced her belief that change is possible. So has her own personal experience.  ‘When I was little my father didn’t think I had the right of education. He wasn’t going to allow me to go, even though he was progressive and had left wing views. I was meant to get married young and stay at home.’  Najat learned to galvanize support from her family and her community to change father’s point of view. It’s a skill that has helped her in her current role as an activist.

 

‘There are women in Morocco that are always pushing for gender rights.  There’s always been a strong women’s movement here which I am very proud to be part of,’ said Najat.

Her own mother had a more conservative vision for her daughter. She wanted Najat  to marry at 15 and lift the family out of poverty while her father was in prison.  Najat worked hard to change her opinion but ultimately she had no choice but to run away. This caused a rift that lasted many years, but it was a sacrifice that had to be made.  ‘My father was left wing and he was imprisoned many times for his opposing views. He was never scared. I learned from his courage. I can’t live my life being humiliated as a woman and being treated like a second class citizen.  I choose to fight for my rights and the rights of women. I have nothing to lose and so much to gain from this struggle.’

For more information about the Caravan project, please contact the charity GirlsNotBrides