The law, both that in writing and that enforced, is one thing – quite another is whether or not the citizens (whom the law is supposed to protect) actually benefit from it. This is a scenario that the legal aid centre in Temara (a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Moroccan capital Rabat) knows all too well. Here, socioeconomically disadvantaged citizens, who are either unaware of their rights or unaware of how to claim them, can find help.
Københavns Retshjælp (Copenhagen Legal Aid Society) like the legal aid centre in Temara provided free legal counselling to Danish citizens. Københavns Retshjælp’s origins date back to 1885, and the organisation is the model upon which the Moroccan centre is based. The Danish legal aid centre is run by a board and more than 120 volunteer legal advisors, including lawyers who are able to bring the clients’ cases before a court judge. The head of the board of Københavns Retshjælp, Dr. Eva Smith, who is has a prominent public profile in Denmark in the area of legal rights, is also connected to KVINFO’s project in Morocco. In the future, Københavns Retshjælp will take an active role in developing further the Moroccan legal aid centre.
Read more about
- Københavns Retshjælp
- Read more about KVINFO’s project ‘Strengthening Women’s Rights and the Access to Justice in the Moroccan Legal System’.
The woman was let into the apartment and thereby became the first to receive assistance from the legal aid centre. Since its unofficial opening in the autumn of 2010, followed by its official opening in spring 2011, the centre has to date welcomed around 80 citizens seeking legal assistance.
The pregnant woman’s main wish was that the father acknowledge paternity and thus she had a DNA test taken with the baby after the birth.
Her profile is typical for the centre’s users: the majority are women, have only a basic or no education, have a low or no income (which is a criteria for getting assistance), and know very little about their legal rights. According to Fatima Maghnaoui, who is the head of the centre, the latter in particular is common among Morocco’s citizens, particularly in areas such as Temara where illiteracy is widespread, yet where Morocco’s family law introduced in 2004 – the Moudawana – naturally also applies.
“When the law was introduced in 2004, much was made of it, and its launch was heralded with a barrage of TV adverts and information campaigns aimed at those who can’t read or write. But that’s just not enough – there still remains a constant and on-going need for information”, tells Fatima Maghnaoui.
Family rights account for most cases
A provisional tally of the centre’s activities shows that the majority of cases are to do with issues that are covered by the Moudawana; family rights issues account for the largest proportion, followed by issues relating to marriage to minors, followed by (women’s) inheritance rights and labour rights. As well as these, come cases where an individual has been thrown out of the home, cases of physical and mental abuse, and cases concerning divorce. The centre does not provide advice in criminal cases.
‘I hereby present my case (…) against Mr (…) whom I married in 2005 and with whom I had a child in December 2008, and who on 16 January 2011 changed all the locks to our house leaving me destitute with my child and preventing me from accessing the house. And who has repeatedly thrown me out of our marital home. And who no longer takes responsibility for, and indeed ignores the welfare of our child. And who repeatedly humiliated me and verbally abused me. And who will not provide me with any form of financial compensation to cover family expenses.’
So reads the statement of another woman who contacted the center. And in the pile of case folders of citizens whom the centre has assisted, there are many similar stories – women thrown out of their homes after having been exposed to physical, mental and financial abuse and whose most pressing problem is supporting themselves and any children involved. These women lack knowledge of their legal rights and of how, in practice, they can lay claim to these rights.
Fighting ignorance and corruption
The Moudawana is the Moroccan family law introduced in 2004, based upon and legitimatised in the Islamic Sharia school of law. The law has been applauded for promoting women’s rights, but at the same time critical voices have also pointed out that the law has also led to an increase in the King’s influence within the country.
When a citizen wants advice from the centre, he or she is required to fill out a form (for which help is available, if needed) with information about the nature of the problem and the desired solution, as well as information about earnings and educational level. From here, with the case now having been formally established, it is sent to be evaluated by one of the centre’s lawyers. The lawyer will then suggest the best course of action to be taken hereon in, which could involve taking the case to another, related, relief organisation that can provide acute counselling. In cases where this is necessary, the centre will also obtain doctors’ certificates to document any abuse and physical injury.
The centre itself cannot conduct a case, but it assists the users in contacting the appropriate authorities in order to become informed about what rights they have.
Such as in the case of the woman was raped and became pregnant as a consequence of the assault.
In this case, the centre helped her to contact a relief organisation that deals with women victims of abuse and which provided her with further support and guidance.
A multi-faceted board provides a wide network and ‘clout’
As well as centre head Fatima Maghnaoui, the centre also employs four legal advisors – three women and one man. They staff the centre according to a rota which is placed in the centre’s open central room so that all can be seen by all.
An external board with representatives from parent organisations from the wider civil society meets once a month.
This meeting takes place in a spartan, but nicely decorated apartment that houses an office, an open central meeting room, a kitchen, and a more private meeting room for confidential meetings.
Fatima Maghnaoui explains that the composition of the board is one of the centre’s great strengths.
“Women’s and human rights organisations, crisis centres (shelters) and psychologists are all represented on the board. Having this mix makes it easy for us to refer our users to other organisations; and likewise, we can spread information about our activities through the large network of the board members”, she explains, adding that the diverse make-up of the board also plays a decisive role when it comes to putting pressure on authorities and decision makers.
One woman’s fight for a father to her son
Returning to the story of the woman who was raped, made pregnant and later had her child DNA tested to establish paternity… The test confirmed that the father of the child was indeed the rapist – the municipal director. The woman went back to the man purely to hear him repudiate the findings of the DNA test and thereby allow her son to be officially registered.
From a legal standpoint, children of unknown paternity in Morocco have the same rights as children born to a named father, but in practice, they are still discriminated against and stigmatised. The woman has now raised a paternity case against her rapist and is currently awaiting a decision to be taken.
Since this woman with the paternity case[called at the apartment in Temara,
a large number of citizens have made use of the centre’s facilities. Many have learned about the centre through the press coverage of its opening or have had the centre recommended to them by acquaintances. Others have heard about the centre from the caravans that travel around the local area.
KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:
The experience from Temara has convinced the centre’s employees that if they had the opportunity to extend the centre’s activities to the rest of Morocco, the move would be welcomed with open arms.
“It’s all a question of financing and capacity, but there’s no doubt that the need is there – that’s something we experience every single day”, concludes Fatima Maghnaoui.