The phenomenon of child marriage in Morocco raises a human rights and legal debate, amid human rights demands to find solutions to stop this growing phenomenon.
On 4 January, Moroccan Minister of Justice, Abdellatif Wehbe, said, "In 2017, 26,000 cases of underage marriage were registered, and the number decreased in 2020 to 12,000 and, in 2021, it rose to 19,000."
In the House of Councillors (the second chamber of Parliament), Wehbe called for outlawing the marriage of minors, which sparked controversy about the phenomenon.
Wehbe said that with the criminalisation of the marriage of minors and the abolition of the permission given by the judge to the minor in order to allow cases of such marriage, stressing that "the appropriate age for marriage is 18 years and above."
This statement gave some hope to human rights organisations, as many activists called for the criminalisation of underage marriage.
The term "child marriage" is the correct term to use for the phenomenon, according to Professor Khaled Lahsika, researcher in Family Sociology and Gender at the University Institute for Scientific Research at Mohammed V University in Rabat.
Lahsika told Anadolu News Agency that the phenomenon is "a violation of children in their natural rights, which perhaps all societies reject under the framework of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child."
Regarding the extent of the phenomenon's spread, he stated that it "is found in isolated areas that are not reached by cultural influences and development, especially rural areas."
He believes that "the main reason for the spread of this phenomenon is the legislator … In fact, the marriage of minors is prohibited in Moroccan law, but because of the exception and the discretionary power, the exception has become a rule."
The law allows marriage for males and females at the age of 18 and requires obtaining permission from the judge to marry females between the ages of 15 and 18, while males are prohibited from marrying before the age of 18.
Lahsika stressed the need to cancel this exception, as "allowing for discretion in making the decision leaves the fate of thousands of children in the hands of others who can decide on their behalf."
In order to eliminate this phenomenon, human rights activists are calling for amending the Family Law to make the legal age for marriage 18 years, and to prevent the marriage of those under the age.
Article 20 of the Law stipulates that "the Family Affairs Judge in charge of marriage may authorise the marriage of a girl or boy below the legal age of marriage as stipulated in preceding Article 19, in a well-substantiated decision explaining the interest and reasons justifying the marriage, after having heard the parents of the minor who has not yet reached the age of capacity or his/her legal tutor, with the assistance of medical expertise or after having conducted a social enquiry."
There are many reasons for the prevalence of underage marriage, most notably the "lack of awareness among families and the lack of respect for the law," according to Bushra Abdo, the head of the Tahadi Association for Equality and Citizenship (ATEC).
She told Anadolu Agency that "early marriage leads to a high divorce rate in society," stressing "the need for strict penalties to overcome this phenomenon."
She specifically called for "changing the law by deleting the paragraphs in the Family Code (law), as they allow for deciding to marrying off minors."
Abdo described the numbers of underage marriages revealed by the Public Prosecution as "realistic", and "large cities are experiencing the same situation as marginalised areas in Morocco due to the spread of this phenomenon."
In 2021, the Moroccan Public Prosecution issued a study on the phenomenon between 2015 and 2019, which confirmed that the marriage of minors has "negative effects that affect both the State and society.
It stressed that the situation "requires concerted efforts and raising the level of community mobilisation" and considered that the phenomenon "is not a purely judicial matter, the reasons of which are limited to the practical management of the provisions of Articles 20 and 21 of the Family Code."
According to the study, "the phenomenon is a societal affair with multiple causes, which include social, economic, cultural and religious causes. Its results affect all parts of society."
With regard to the age of marriage, the study recorded the highest number of marriages, which is 1,099, occurred between those between the ages of 17 and 17-and-half years, and the number of marriages of minors over the age of 17-and-half years reached 744 cases.
262 minors married between 16-and-half and 17 years old, followed by 181 marriages of minors between 16-and-half and 16, 13 marriages between 15 and 16, and one case under the age of 15.
The study stated that the predominant age difference between underage girls and their husbands ranges between 5 and 15 years, followed by a difference between 15 and 25 years, then over 20 years.
The Public Prosecution concluded that early marriage affects the minor's health, in addition to their suffering from psychological, economic, physical and sexual violence.