King Mohammed VI should appoint women's rights activists to a new royal commission on changing Morocco's "personal status" code,
Human Rights Watch urged today. The International monitoring group also pressed for swift progress on eliminating sex discrimination from the country's laws.

The personal status code, part of Morocco's civil law, establishes a system of inequality based on sex, and relegates women to a subordinate status in society. The code stipulates that the family is under the direction of the husband, and that the wife's main marital duty is to obey her husband in all matters.

"Reforming the personal status code is a true test for Morocco's progress on human rights," said Regan E. Ralph, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "The Yousoufi government should finish what it started when it presented its reforms to the code two years ago."

King Mohammed VI met on March 5, 2001, with women representatives of political and women's rights organizations, and announced the formation of the royal commission. Morocco last modified its personal status code in 1993, but numerous provisions still discriminate against women.

In March 1999, in an effort to address discrimination against women, Prime Minister Abderrahmane El-Yousoufi presented a
National Plan for the Integration of Women in Development. The plan's section on reforming the personal status code would,
among other things, raise the minimum age of marriage for girls and women from fifteen to eighteen; outlaw polygamy except in
certain cases; give women the right to half of the property acquired during the marriage after a divorce; and allow divorced mothers to retain custody of their children if they remarry.

The plan, especially the section on reforming the personal status code, has faced fierce opposition from conservative and Islamist groups. In March 2000, two large demonstrations, one supporting the plan and one opposing it, were organized in Rabat and Casablanca.

In May 2000, and in response to the intense public debate on women's rights, the prime minister appointed a committee of twenty religious scholars, sociologists, judges, and one women's rights activist, to look into the controversial aspects of the plan and make their recommendations to the King. The committee has never met, and as a result the implementation of the plan has been put on hold.

"Women's rights to equality in law and practice should not be compromised," added Ralph. "The new royal commission should reflect the growing voices for reform, and should include representatives of women's rights organizations."

In 1998, the late King Hassan II asked El-Yousoufi to form a coalition government. El-Yousoufi is the first opposition figure to become prime minister in modern Moroccan history. Hopes were high that the Yousoufi government would make progress on human rights, and address thorny issues such as impunity for previous abuses and women's rights. When King Mohammed VI acceded to the throne in 1999, hopes were also raised that a new era of reform was about to begin in Morocco. The new king has stated on more than one occasion his support for human rights and his belief that protecting human rights is consistent with Islam, Morocco's official religion.

In 1992, Moroccan women's rights activists initiated a one million-signature campaign to reform the personal status code. Their campaign resulted in minimal reforms in 1993. These reforms required the consent and signature of the intended wife to the marriage contract; allowed women over the age of eighteen whose fathers are deceased to contract their marriage without a guardian's permission; allowed a woman to include a clause in the marriage contract reserving her right to ask for a divorce if
her husband marries additional wives; and granted women whose husbands are deceased or incapacitated the legal custody of their children.

Since 1993, women's rights organizations have established various centers for legal and psychological counseling for women, and conducted public awareness campaigns on discrimination and violence against women. In 1998, the Yousoufi government conducted a public awareness campaign on violence against women, and then, in consultation with women's rights organizations, introduced the Plan for the Integration of Women in Development. The plan focuses on illiteracy, reproductive health, economic development, and women's legal, political, and institutional development.

Given widespread recognition of the need to improve women's rights as a part of improving Morocco's overall human rights record, women's rights activists have expressed their expectations that the National Plan for the Integration of Women in Development-which represents at best their minimum demands-could and should be implemented.

Morocco's current personal status code (PSC) establishes the legal framework for men's ability to assert authority and control over women within the context of the family. It also creates different standards and rights for women and men when entering marriage. Moroccan women's inequality in marriage begins before their unions are finalized. For example, while men over the age of eighteen are not required to seek authorization to marry, women of any age must obtain the authorization of a male guardian in contracting marriage. Only in narrow circumstances are women legally authorized to represent themselves in contracting their marriage.

Moroccan law further discriminates against women by allowing men to have up to four wives simultaneously. The 1993 law reforms require the disclosure of polygamy to the first and subsequent wives, and subject polygamy to the discretion of the judge. However, evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch indicates that these reforms were ineffective since they fail to spell out the specific procedures to ensure their enforcement.

Under prevailing Moroccan personal status laws, the husband enjoys a unilateral and unconditional right to divorce (repudiate) his wife. Men are granted sole right to repudiation, and the right to revoke the repudiation at will within three months. A husband can exercise repudiation three times and revoke it two times. Our research indicates that the ease with which men can revoke their repudiation creates legal, emotional, and mental hardships for women. The PSC requires the repudiation to take place in the presence of the wife and with a judge's authorization. If a wife is summoned to court and does not attend, and her husband insists on the repudiation, her
presence is immaterial.

Women, in contrast, have much more limited ability to initiate divorce. Unlike men, women cannot divorce their husbands without specific grounds or a court proceeding. A woman can offer financial compensation in exchange for repudiation (khul'), or sue for a judicial divorce. Husbands, however, can effectively restrict a woman's access to divorce by refusing to accept compensation to terminate the marriage. Even when a husband agrees to divorce, many women consider khul' to be an undesirable option since it often requires them to relinquish future financial support and property to which they otherwise would be entitled.

A wife's only other access to divorce is to initiate a judicial divorce on one of five grounds: her husband's lack of financial support; his unjustifiable prolonged absence; his suffering from an incurable disease or defect; his abstinence from sexual relations for more than four months; or his doing her harm. Domestic violence does not constitute separate grounds for divorce under Moroccan penal law, but is, if proven, considered to constitute harm. The burden of proof is on the woman, and the standard of proof applied in many divorce cases involving domestic violence is exceptionally high. Judges usually demand medical certificates testifying to grave assault, as well as
documentation of the initiation or completion of police and criminal proceedings. Our research found that the high standard of proof discourages women victims of domestic violence from suing for divorce.

One serious consequence of such systematic, routine discrimination against women is to render them vulnerable to violence. Furthermore, the barriers to judicial divorce
on the grounds of harm convey to men an implicit but powerful message of social tolerance for a certain degree of domestic violence. Unless divorce is preceded by reconciliation attempts and there is a history of abuse proven by medical as well as police or court documentation, a woman's ability to escape an abusive husband by way of judicial divorce is severely restricted. Therefore, by failing to recognize physical acts of discipline as abusive, and by denying women adequate legal recourse to remedy such violence, the Moroccan legal system allows husbands to abuse their wives with impunity.