50.50: News

Death of 14-year-old triggers protests for abortion rights in Morocco

Moroccan feminists are protesting both online and offline to kickstart stalled reforms to abortion rights and more

Vanessa Sarmiento Alarcon Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra
21 October 2022, 2.15pm

Protesters from the organisation Fédération des Ligues des Droits des Femmes (FLDF)


Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

September’s International Safe Abortion Day saw Moroccan women take to the streets for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic – and their protests have continued.

The rallies came days after the death of a 14-year-old girl, Meriem, during a clandestine abortion. The abortion happened in the house of a man who has been accused of sexually exploiting her, and he has been arrested along with the health workers involved.

Abortion is largely illegal in Morocco, permitted only when the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Abortions under other circumstances attract penalties of up to two years for those who receive them, and 10 to 30 years for the health workers involved.

King Mohammed VI ordered legal reforms in 2015 that would include exceptions for rape and incest but the process has stalled for seven years. Meanwhile, between 600 and 800 clandestine abortions happen each day in the country, according to the Moroccan Organization against Clandestine Abortion (AMLAC).

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

Often, when pregnant people are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, the outcome is bad for the babies born – as stated by Moroccan feminist activist Aicha Ech-chenna in 2019, an average of 24 newborn babies are abandoned in the rubbish every day across Morocco.

On 6 October, dozens of activists gathered outside the country’s parliamentary building with posters that said in Arabic, local Darija, French, and English: “For you, they’re laws; for us, they are death penalties,” and: “You can’t ban abortion; you can only ban safe abortion.”

Imane Regraguy, a medical student, was one of the dozens of protestors present. She says the issue moves her both “as a woman, to see another girl dying for no reason, and on the medical side, because people don’t understand how risky it is to do these illegal abortions”.

Others said the thought of accidental or unwanted pregnancy brings them absolute panic because of the pressures imposed by law, society, and religion.

“We need to stop treating women like baby machines,” said Malak Berkia, another medical student at the protest. To stress that Meriem’s case is not isolated, Malak told the story of a friend who went to Malak’s own mother, a teacher, terrified because of an accidental pregnancy. “She couldn’t tell her parents she was pregnant because they would kill her, or put her in the street. My mother didn't know what to tell her. Then the student disappeared. We don't know what happened to her to this day.”

As dozens gathered outside parliament, a panel of experts working for individual freedoms and the decriminalisation of abortion at the International University of Rabat discussed the question: “Who owns women's bodies?” In the room were around 80 students.

A broad intersectional movement

The rallying call for recent protests may have been abortion rights, but the demands of Morocco’s feminist movement extend further than that. Both in front of the parliament and at the conference, activists talked about the importance of working under the umbrella of “individual freedoms”, which includes the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, reforming the Moroccan family code, and free expression, among others.

“For us, rights are indivisible,” said Amina Lofti, president of the Democratic Association for Moroccan Women (ADFM), during the conference. “We cannot defend one right and fight against another. We’re truly advocating for the promotion and protection of individual freedoms. The LGBTQ+ community in Morocco, asks for the recognition, decriminalization and protection of their existence.


A protestor carrying a poster from the Moroccan Otlaws 490 organisation


Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

Moroccan women question: “Why can’t we have full ownership of our bodies?” Their demands extend beyond abortion. They want a complete reform of the penal code to guarantee civil liberties and human rights, and implement the gender equality promised by the country’s 2011 constitution. “Whether it's the article about the marriage of minors or the legacy of sexism in inheritance, there are heaps of problems to solve and that's why Moudawana [family code] needs a complete overhaul,“ said Camélia Echchihab, a franco-Moroccan feminist journalist.

The collective Moroccan Outlaws 490, which was formed the day after journalist Hajar Raissouni was arrested in 2019 for “illegal abortion” and “sex outside marriage”, is pushing for the repeal of all “articles of the Penal Code which punish with imprisonment acts relating to the exercise of individual freedoms”. That means provisions that criminalise “sexual relations outside marriage, voluntary termination of pregnancy and homosexuality,” said Narjis Benazzou, the group’s president. It is named after Article 490, the section of the penal code that criminalises consensual sexual relationships outside marriage.

Benazzou says the article “prevents women from speaking against sexual violence and rape”, and leads to forced marriages between victims of sexual violence and their abusers: “That happened in the case of Meriem, who didn’t denounce her [the man .” In addition, she sees it as limiting free expression. “The existence of article 490 does not permit sensitising youth, particularly young women, about sexual relationships, and that puts them at risk.” Or as 23-year-old activist Soumbala puts it: “We cannot talk about sex, sexual education, or our bodies, here in Morocco. It's taboo.”

But protesting on the street is not possible for everyone. The Moroccan police have a documented history of disproportionate use of force against protesters. Moroccan journalists have been targeted for their dissent, sometimes with the same morality laws that were used to convict Hajar Raissouni and Hicham Mansouri for illegal abortion and adultery. Activists and even doctors live in fear of being tagged as a threat to the Makhzen (traditional state). Potential protestors fear they will be targeted too. “People are like: ‘Nothing will change anyways and if we go to protests we might risk getting badly hurt, so why bother?’” said one protester at the march outside parliament, who said she had to overcome strong anxiety to show up.

Many more who don’t manage to overcome that anxiety turn online, where they can get some anonymity. In recent months, hashtags such as #Meriem have fuelled debate, just as #Stop490, #Masaktach and #MeTooUniv did in the past.

The younger hyperconnected generation aged 18 to 24, often tagged as whiners by their elders, want more. “I don't want my country to just stay as it is right now because it's not sustainable,” stressed Regraguy. Another protester, who recently turned 17 and came to the protest with her friends, said hopefully: “I think that us, the younger generation, should raise awareness about this.”

A third, who came with her father, echoed this. “I hope in the future women’s rights will be protected,” she said. “I hope I live long enough to see it happening in Morocco.”

Related story

oD default fallback image
Morocco has avoided the violence and instability of neighbours to the west. But to build a more inclusive economy it still has a hard route to navigate.

Related story

oD default fallback image

Ukraine's fight for economic justice

Russian aggression is driving Ukrainians into poverty. But the war could also be an opportunity to reset the Ukrainian economy – if only people and politicians could agree how. The danger is that wartime ‘reforms’ could ease a permanent shift to a smaller state – with less regulation and protection for citizens.
Our speakers will help you unpack these issues and explain why support for Ukrainian society is more important than ever.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData