Nadia was just 16 when she was married off to an abusive husband old enough to be her father – an ordeal that thousands of Moroccan girls face each year due to a legal loophole.
“I’ve been through hell. But the nightmare is behind me now,” she said.
Nadia, from a remote region in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of the North African kingdom, has managed to get a divorce after a year of marriage.
Now 20 years old and living with her parents in her village of Tamarwoute, she is learning to read and write.
“My dream is to be independent, and I encourage other girls in the village to do the same,” she says shyly, her face half covered with a scarf.
Like the other women with similar stories cited in this article, her name has been changed to protect her identity.
Morocco’s 2004 family code sets the legal age of marriage at 18, but it includes a clause allowing judges to grant families special dispensation to marry off children under that age.
Rights groups have long called for the loophole to be closed.
But according to official figures, judges approved some 13,000 waivers in 2020 alone, more than half of all applications.
This figure does not include minors married in customary marriages, not recognized by law but sealed by a simple reading of a verse from the Koran alongside two witnesses.
Najat Ikhich of rights group YTTO says “this tragedy is widespread in remote, landlocked and marginalized areas”.
For 10 years, the association she leads has made an annual convoy through Morocco’s remote mountain communities, stopping to raise awareness of the dangers of early marriage, organize debates and distribute aid.
Precarious livelihoods and longstanding traditions make the group’s mission particularly sensitive.
“It’s delicate work because it’s a taboo subject, so it’s vital that we gain the trust of the people we meet and above all, that we listen to them,” Ikhich said.
Battle for independence
In the nearby village of Tamadghouste, among the hills dotted with the region’s famous argan trees, hardly a soul moved.
A few young women were gathered to bake bread in the communal oven.
Ikhich approached and exchanged a few words with them in Amazigh, the Berber language of Morocco.
The wary looks of women quickly gave way to a flood of complaints about the standard of living in a village that has no school or pharmacy.
Amina, 23, said she was trying to ‘take control’ of her life, after being taken out of school aged six and married off at 17.
“I always wanted to study but no one helped me. My three sisters had it even worse: they got married very young, around the age of 14,” she said.
In the Souss Massa region, more than 44% of women are illiterate, according to the latest official figures from 2014.
Educating women and making them more economically independent are key to tackling child marriage, said Karima Errejraji, YTTO’s coordinator for southern Morocco.
She had never set foot in a school as a child and was married at the age of 14 to a 56-year-old man, four times her age.
“I got out of it by getting involved in associations,” she says. “I decided to dedicate my life to helping the girls of this region.”
At the communal oven in Tamadghouste, women discuss making carpets or selling traditional bread to nearby hotels as ways to earn a living and gain self-reliance.
They agreed on one thing: all girls have the right to an education.
Izza, a bright-eyed 23-year-old who married six years ago, said she was fighting for her daughter to have an education.
“She must build herself, become independent and avoid finding herself in my situation,” she says.
© Agence France-Presse