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Sexualized violence against minors in Morocco

‘Everything is falling apart’

Sexualized violence against minors in Morocco
Photograph: Mohamed Abttache

Safiya, Ameer and Aziz were victims of sexualized violence. The perpetrators have exposed the minors to a future full of shame and isolation. The victims can hardly expect help from the Moroccan state.

Trigger warning: This report deals with sexualized violence against minors and sheds light on the consequences of such abuse of power for the victims.


“Kan kidirli dak chi” – he was doing that thing. A few simple words reveal a profound psychological trauma Safiya has not recovered from even years after the end of her horrors. Alhajj, her seventy-year-old abuser, has become a ghost that haunts the girl in her sleep, appearing to her in a bright white robe with a knife, or at other times snatching her from her father‘s embrace.


Safiya, a ten-year-old who lives in a narrow alley in the rural municipality of Mediouna on the southern outskirts of Morocco’s economic capital Casablanca, is a victim of sexual violence at the hands of her neighbour. The man, sixty years older than her, lured the girl into his house, only metres away from her family home, whenever he got the chance.


“The old man raped my daughter since she was only two years old, and we didn’t know,” says Safiya’s mother. “It was only when she grew older that the effects of the assaults came to the surface. Her teacher became concerned about her behaviour and her constant lateness in class. This was the key that led me to discover the continuous abuse that Safiya was suffering. The seventy-year-old man’s seemingly dignified manner did not arouse any suspicion, although he clung to my daughter tightly. He baited her with fruit and money into his house and bed anytime he could. He threatened to throw her out of the window if she even thought of telling someone about what happened.”


Several factors made Safiya an easy target for her rapist. Her home is in a barely two-metre-wide alley in an impoverished neighbourhood. Her family is very busy; her father, a public servant, leaves for work early in the morning and does not return until late at night. Her older brother is also preoccupied with work, while her mother looks after her baby brother. They live in a 50m2 house, with the parents’ bedroom on the top floor and the children’s downstairs. Due to lack of space, Safiya would play with her friends outside the house, which made it easy for the man to surreptitiously watch her every move from his window and lure her inside.


This house, so similar in architecture to Safiya’s own, she remembers in every detail. “I remember everything in his house. Downstairs is the Koran and the prayer rug. Upstairs, where he sleeps, is a double bed which is neat and tidy, and a traditional wardrobe.”


Her mother, looking around the room from behind her Khimar, admits that after the suspicions of the teacher and the revelation of her daughter’s assault, she could not bring herself to tell her husband for fear of his violent reaction as well as her conservative family’s judgement, as society in Morocco tends to blame the victim.


The chick became Safiya's only friend


Amid the heedlessness of everyone around her, the girl’s trauma worsened. She became unable to concentrate in school, changed her behaviour towards her mother, and became isolated. “When I found some money in her possession and asked about it,” the distraught mother says, “she replied, ‘Alhajj gave it to me’!”


Safiya’s dramatic situation eventually led her mother to disclose the secret to her husband. From that moment on, her sexual abuse determined the family’s life and medicine boxes began to fill the corners of their home.


“My life has changed completely,” Safiya’s mother admits. “My husband’s illnesses – his diabetes, heart and blood pressure – have become so much worse, especially when they released the man who assaulted my daughter early. They had sentenced him to five years in prison and he served less than two, after a decision to reduce the number of prisoners for fear of coronavirus breakouts in prisons. They did not take into account the circumstances of my daughter, who is still caught in an endless circle of nightmares and mental health problems. The only things she occupies herself with these days are our animals.”


Safiya’s mother tells us that her daughter accuses her of “destroying her life” since she told her husband everything, which is reflected in some unusual behaviour toward her.


Safiya’s preoccupation with the family’s animals also fuels her father’s anxiety. Since his daughter’s assault, she has been become deeply attached to a chick, which follows her wherever she goes. It is her way of processing her trauma, and it also helps her forget. Since she was also bullied by classmates, Safiya no longer spends time with friends, so the chick has become her only companion.


Her future aspirations have changed too. She used to dream of becoming a teacher, but has drawn inspiration from the courtroom and now wants to be a judge. She wants to restore some of the confidence of her childhood, confidence that was crushed by the old man, and to avenge other children who fall victim to such crimes. “I want to become a judge to rule justly,” says Safiya.


Having been continuously violated, raped and threatened, Safiya has only received two mental counselling sessions. The first was when her family found out on 28 October, 2018, with a paediatrician at the public Ibn Rushd Children’s Hospital in Casablanca. The second time was two months later, on 4 January, 2019, with the same doctor. Then her sessions were discontinued.


Safiya’s health booklet does not include any comments by her assigned doctor on the results of the sessions or her receptivity to treatment. In fact, her booklet is completely empty apart from the dates of the two sessions.


Her family, a middle-income family where the father is the sole breadwinner, says that the reasons for discontinuing the therapy were the distance of 20km between their home and the children’s hospital, the lack of guidance and information on psychological therapy, and most of all the cost of private treatment. A session costs 300-500 dirhams, depending on the clinic and the selected options. Safiya’s parents criticise the scarcity of public treatment options in residential areas.


According to the latest Ministry of Health statistics on mental health institutions, the Ministry has not employed more than five child psychologists per year since 2017 and they are assigned to the big hospitals in cities only, such as the Ibn Rush Hospital in Casablanca, which treats about 500 children and adolescents a month. This gives children like Safiya who live on the periphery of cities hardly any chance to receive mental support and regular therapy.


After her assault, Safiya had to face society hurt and alone, like hundreds of other abused children in Morocco every year, and chose to withdraw. Her two therapy sessions covered only “the most basic advice and future caution”, her family says.


‘It's very difficult to help the children’


This is criticised by Dr Nordin Dahhan, a child psychiatrist in Tangier. “Therapy sessions with children must pass through different stages. Children who were subjected to long-term abuse were under the influence of a destructive personality, and it is very difficult to help those children successfully. The experience of specialists is low; in fact, it is a specialisation within a specialisation. We need special teams for this.”


Safiya’s lawyer, Youssef Ghareeb, who is also a lawyer at the Association Touche pas à mes enfants (Don’t Touch My Children) for child protection, says the lack of mental support for the ‘children of hashouma’ (children of shame) should be a wake-up call to the national and international conscience. “We have come across a number of families whose children were exposed to sexual violence and have not been offered mental support after the incident. The state must intervene and establish special centres and recruit medical teams and psychologists.”


Safiya’s story resembles that of six-year-old Ameer, who lives 54km south of Agadir in the rural municipality of Ait Amira. However, his abusers were relatives. He and his mother Saida (31), who is divorced, struggle to make ends meet and the difficult circumstances of their lives have worsened Ameer’s mental trauma.


Like Safiya, Ameer was silenced for months by the twisted hashouma logic – that he was a source of shame for his family. And it was also his mother who discovered what had happened when her son began to display unusual behaviour.


“I didn’t find out about the assault until I visited my sister,” Saida recalls. “Ameer was looking at a flask filled with a liquid on top of the television. Suddenly he turned around, pointed at it and said in utter astonishment, ‘Mama, mama… this is the serum that I drink at my uncle’s.’” She then discovered that her child had been the victim of continuous sexual assault, which took place while he visited his father in the town of Jamâat Shaim, on the outskirts of Safi in central Morocco.


After Ameer’s mother discovered the secret, she pressed her son to tell her everything. The horrific truth was that two of his uncles had repeatedly lured him into the mountains for sheep herding and raped him. Sometimes they would use a ‘serum’ to make him sleep and stop his screaming, and sometimes he would surrender voluntarily, seeing that alone with them he had no other choice. “They assaulted me and did this thing to me. They used the serum when I screamed. I want them arrested and killed,” was all Ameer was able to reveal.


Saida recalls that her son’s behaviour had noticeably changed. He would run to the bathroom with great urgency whenever he needed to relieve himself. Then she caught him with his little brother, Mohammed Ameen (5), in a shocking situation where they were getting undressed to engage in a superficial sexual activity. Saida says her whole life has been turned upside down.


Saida can not stop crying


In the absence of an income or provider, great poverty has struck Saida and her two children amid Ameer’s trauma of sexual abuse, deepening with every day that passes. There is barely a place to sit in the house after Saida had to sell all the furniture to feed the family. All they have left are a few cushions and kitchen supplies. Broken sewage pipes, whose repair she cannot afford, send foul smells into every corner of the house.


Saida is overcome with sadness and cannot stop crying. She is afraid to take on work, thinking her absence would leave her children vulnerable to exploitation by strangers. She has therefore decided to try to sell her hosue, with her telephone number displayed on the outside walls in the hope a potential buyer passes by. She wants to use the money for lawyers in the case against her son’s abusers, as well as for her son’s psychological treatment and education.


“I was hoping for his bright future, that he would save me from the miserable life I’ve been living. I was devastated to see his and my future destroyed. Everything is falling apart,” she says with distress.


When Ameer thinks back to what happened to him, caution and fear play on his face. His eyes are sceptical of every man who enters the house, even of the neighbour’s two young sons. Ameer and Saida’s fear that someone could ambush him any moment and continue the abuse has become a constant nightmare, particularly since everyone in the neighbourhood has found out. In this sort of environment, Saida thinks, and with the Souss region crime-ridden in general, Ameer makes an easy target.


Sexualized violence against minors in Morocco
“I didn’t receive protection from the retaliation of my abusers or psychological counselling to overcome my mental trauma”, Aziz recalls.


Ameer’s case only reached the courts in early June, after Saida had submitted a complaint to the Public Prosecution detailing the sexual violence against her son and demanding that the two perpetrators be arrested. In the meantime, her son has attended a single mental support session in a private practice, as the family cannot afford continuous therapy. Moreover, the closest public clinic for children is at the Hospital Hassan II in east Agadir, 41km away. Ameer and his mother have somewhat surrendered to their circumstances, in a society that considers victims of sexual violence easy prey.


Ameer has much in common with the hundreds of other children in the Souss-Massa region who have been subjected to sexual violence. The latest report by the Association Proteger mon enfant (Protecting My Child) for children’s rights, which provides Ameer with legal support, warns, “The phenomenon of sexual assault against children is spreading at a frightening pace… Cases in which relatives are the aggressors make up 30 percent of all cases.”


According to the Association, “Most victims of sexual violence between the ages of two and six encounter their abusers, who are often relatives or people with a criminal record, in nurseries or shops. Poverty and family disintegration top the list of factors enabling sexual violence against children.”


Government institutions – the Ministry of Justice and the General Directorate for National Security – state in their most current available reports, for 2010 and 2012, that 26 percent of all cases of violence recorded in Morocco fall into the category of sexual violence. Between 2009 and 2012, Morocco's security departments recorded 11,599 cases of sexual violence against minors, of which 16 percent occurred within family circles and 67 percent on the street. According to the latest official Ministry of Justice report from 2017, 2,403 cases of sexual violence were recorded in that year alone, which speaks to an increase in the numbers of sexual violence against children in Morocco over the years.


His father threw him out of the house


Among the cases that reached the NGO Proteger mon enfant in the Souss-Massa region is the complex story of a young man from Agadir, Aziz (31), who agreed to share his experience with us provided that our interview took place in a public park close to the location of his childhood trauma. While this choice highlights his efforts to face his psychological scars, his sister still refuses to let strangers into her house.


Aziz, looking back at a “wounded childhood”, recalls what happened to him. “When I was 14, I was preoccupied with fun and games like all children that age. One day I was playing in the park next to this one, when three young men came out of nowhere, put a knife to my neck and took me to a forest outside the city. They mercilessly raped me in several ways until the night.”


“After the assault, they left me behind and I had to walk a long distance before I came across the road back home. But when I reached home, my father ignored me and went to work in the morning as usual. I didn’t receive protection from the retaliation of my abusers or psychological counselling to overcome my mental trauma.”


When Aziz became severely depressed and stopped leaving the house, his mother thought he was bewitched and took him to some ‘wise men’ for treatment. But his state worsened, prompting his father to throw him out of the house. During his time on the streets, he was sexually assaulted a second time by two shady individuals, who left a deep cut in his face with a knife when he tried to fight them off.


The young man withdrew into complete isolation and eventually sought shelter at his sister’s house. “No one would even hire me for a job with this deep wound in my face. From time to time, I have thought about suicide or revenge on the people who raped me. I recently spotted two of them. They work at a garage.”


According to the Proteger mon enfant report, “Hundreds of victims of sexual violence face the rejection of their families due to a prevailing victim-shaming mentality, which increases their suffering. This is met by the absence of a legal framework. Currently, Moroccan law does not oblige families to send their children to public health institutions for therapy. Only one decree, from 30 April 1959, is concerned with mental health. It is one of the oldest laws in the Kingdom and has remained unchanged under thirty health ministers since its issuance.”


This has been a point of widespread criticism in Morocco, as indicated by a September 2012 report from the National Human Rights Council, a government institution. It points to the “outdatedness of the national legal framework on this issue to a point of inadequacy in responding to the current reality”, as well as the “absence of a special commitment and protection for these segments of children”.


The legal void and stagnation underline the necessity to formulate new laws that enable adequate responses to the startling crimes that have lately come to the surface in Moroccan society, most notably in villages.


Girls are brought up thinking ‘honour’ is their only ‘treasure’


All stories revealed here share common denominators. The lack of mental health services has made it almost impossible for these victims of sexual violence to overcome their trauma, which could have dangerous consequences for their future. Vengeance, in one form or the other, is on the minds of all of them. Some wish death on their abusers in the face of lenient courts and early prison releases; others hope to become judges themselves in order to bring justice to children whose trust in the safety of their homes has been betrayed and forever destroyed. The judgemental gaze of society fuels these children’s mental trauma, and the words whispered by relatives sear into their minds, never to be forgotten.


In Morocco, children who fall victim to sexual violence are often seen as a burden to their families. They are blamed for their own suffering and accused of carelessness with strangers, especially girls, who are brought up thinking ‘honour’ is their only ‘treasure’. The absence of sexual education affects children’s most basic comprehension of sexuality, let alone the difference between consensual sex and violence, leaving them unable to describe what ‘that thing’ actually is and what happened to them during their abuse – and to understand that it was wrong. They are not allowed to sit down and talk about their experience, which makes forgetting their only option.


Despite the prevailing victim-blaming culture in Morocco, many families do want to help their traumatised children. However, they are faced with an often unsurmountable financial obstacle – the cost of hospitals and medical certificates, court transfers, security departments, lawyers, handling fees and more. Especially in less well-off families, these expenses can evoke feelings of guilt in children. “We could not continue the therapy with the doctor because of the price of the sessions. My father cannot pay every time,” says Safiya.


The social stability of these families has been shattered. Children who are victims of sexual violence become anomalies or strays within their families. Their future becomes unknown, with the threat of homelessness, repeated assault and abuse, and even prostitution hanging over them.


Victims of sexual violence and their families face this mental and financial suffering all on their own, in the absence of government support and direction. The Ministry of Solidarity, Social Development, Equality and Family, which is the government body directly entrusted with their cases, has disappeared from the scene. Given the unanimity of testimony by families, lawyers and jurists, some of it cited in this investigation, we contacted the Ministry for comment on this urgent matter. We were ignored. The same applies to the Ministry of Health, which we asked to comment on the inadequacy of Morocco’s mental health system. The Ministry’s Registry Office in Rabat received the request, but chose not to reply.


The research for this article was supported by the Candid Foundation’s journalism grant.

Mohamed Abttache