Moroccan women have been disproportionately impacted by the economic consequences of the pandemic. The general figures show that female labour force participation in Morocco stands at 21.3% and is concentrated in the agricultural and industrial sectors. Moreover, around 17% of women in non-agricultural employment work in the informal economy and, therefore, have been particularly vulnerable to the interruption of activities resulting from confinement measures. As a consequence of the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the additional domestic work has weighed more on women, who already bore most of the responsibility for the majority of unpaid domestic activities in Morocco as shown in a study carried out in 2017. Research revealed that Moroccan women dedicate 38% of their free time to domestic work, while men only 5%. Unfortunately, the damage to women confined in their homes does not include only more domestic work and a reduction of employment.
Around 17,000 cases of gender-based violence take place annually in Morocco’s courts, and civil society movements like Masaktash and international organizations have warned that the COVID-19 lockdown has been increasing events of domestic violence. Support was also shown by Secretary-General of the UN Antonio Guterres who warned: “We know that containment measures and quarantine are essential to overcome COVID-19. But they can also trap women with violent partners.”
Morocco along with the EU and a group of countries agreed to support the UN’s goal for “peace at home, in households, around the world.” As a part of the agreement, countries pledged to establish a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence. However, figures suggest that not enough work has been carried out to lower these violent issues. Dr Kenza Oumlil, an Associate Professor in Communication at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane (AUI), Morocco stated: “We mourn the lives of those who tragically succumbed to Covid-19, but women’s well-being has been statistically endangered in normal times.”
The situation for women and girls was already dire before the insurgence of COVID-19, as reported by the Higher Planning Commission (HCP), 52% of Moroccan women were subjected to domestic violence. Similar percentages have also been highlighted by a study in 2019 by the Ministry of Family, Solidarity, Equality and Social Development which found a national prevalence rate of violence against women at 54%. During confinement, psychological pressure and physical proximity exacerbate gender-based violence. Many female victims of domestic violence now feel further entrapped and unable to find an escape route. In the first month of lockdown (March 20th – April 20th), Moroccan prosecutors across the country registered 892 complaints of physical, sexual, economic, and psychological abuse of women.
Some women, like Imane from the small city of Benslimane, have tried to find help by speaking to the media. “I am so scared,” said Imane, who had been beaten by her husband for five years until she sued him in 2019, to a radio host. But when the quarantine started, the violence resumed. “He always tells me that I can’t do anything, and no one can save me from him,”. When Imane found herself trapped in her home with her violent husband, she called the police first, even before the hotline. “I called them but they did not come to save me,” she said – her desperation cutting through the radio waves. Police refused to visit her household because of Moroccan law which forbids law enforcement from going to the scene of domestic disputes unless an imminent threat of death is identified. So, the police told Imane to file a complaint. At the time, that was only possible in person. But, like most women, Imane could not leave her home.
Although on June 10 the government relaxed the lockdown for the areas with low infection rates, nothing changed in larger cities. People still cannot leave home without official authorization, which is usually granted only to one person per household. In this context, without authorization, a victim of abuse cannot seek refuge at a friend’s home or a shelter, leaving her without options.
Aid organizations, journalists and rights activists have received a flood of messages from victims and survivors on WhatsApp and Twitter. Some women have even publicly posted on social media about abuse, risking retaliation from perpetrators and victim-shaming. Yet all of this is not included in official records. In a memorandum on April 30, Morocco’s chief prosecutor reported that courts in Morocco received 40% fewer domestic violence complaints than normal during the first month of lockdown. Of the aforementioned 892 complaints were filed by victims, only 148 have been prosecuted – 90% fewer than the typical 1,500 per month.
Rights activists say the decline in reported cases is misleading. “It doesn’t mean violence has gone down,” said Stephanie Willman Bordat, a lawyer who runs the Moroccan non-profit Mobilizing for Rights Associates, or MRA women. “It means that people aren’t able to make complaints and don’t have access to justice.” Confirmation of these misleading statistics can be found in the report published by the Moroccan Union of Feminist Action (UFA) saying that violence against women in Morocco has risen since the start of the quarantine. The figures presented by the UFA, based on a tally gathered by its help centres across the kingdom during the period from 20 March to 15 May, indicate that the number of cases of violence against women doubled, compared to the number of cases registered since the beginning of the year till March 15. Their platforms received more than 760 calls regarding 1000 cases of violence.
The UFA said that the high tally shows that battered women find it difficult to file complaints by the means suggested by the Public Prosecution Presidency in the current exceptional circumstances. More than 60% of callers are unable to read and write, and they cannot write an email, as they lack the technical means to do so (i.e. access to internet and/or technology). UFA’s report also highlighted that Moroccan women’s help centres received calls from women from both cities and villages, reporting marital and domestic violence, violence against children, the seizure of their savings, and the threat of eviction from the marital home during the quarantine that has further deepened their suffering, given the difficulty of movement or not having the financial assets to escape the house. There have also been cases when the police took the initiative to re-enter women to the marital home without offering further assistance and leaving them to the violent hands of the husbands. They usually reluctantly accept their wife back home, for fear of being sued, but then they brutally assault them again as a form of retaliation .
Around thirty other associations have urged authorities to bring an urgent answer to gendered violence against women during COVID-19. In a letter addressed to several ministers, these NGOs recalled that “home is the most dangerous place for women.” In this letter, they also cite cases “where husbands abuse confinement by putting psychological pressure and exercising physical coercion to force their wives to give up their rights.” It is clear to these NGOs that the rate of violence will only increase over time if unchecked, due to the economic difficulties of households during this period of crisis.  “During normal times we can say there is not this rate of violence,” said Bouchra Abdou, director of the Tahadi Association for Equality and Citizenship in Casablanca. Since the confinement period began, calls to her organization’s hotline have tripled. “Now there are lots of calls. Sometimes in one day, it’s 20 to 30 calls.” 
In response to the multiple challenges Moroccan women are facing as a result of COVID-19 outbreak, UN Women is coordinating a multi-sectoral response to the crisis, utilizing the support of three currently serving UN Volunteers.
Sacha Belle-Clot (France) serves as a UN Volunteer Programme Assistant supporting the implementation of the Gender Responsive Budgeting Programme. She also supports partnerships with Morocco’s Department of Reform of the Administration to strengthen gender equality in the public service.
Entissar El Mokhtar serves as a national UN Volunteer Project Associate within the project, Men and Women for Gender Equality. She is currently contributing to UN Women’s research on a benchmark of worldwide responses to women’s situations under COVID-19. Simultaneously, she is supporting an awareness campaign on positive masculinities, promoting shared household responsibilities between men and women during the lockdown. Her message to all women facing violence is that help is still available during these difficult times, “You are strong and you are not alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it.”
Sofia El Caidi, who serves as a Programme Assistant within another project, Enhanced Prevention and Intervention in Cases of Violence Against Women in Morocco, observes that COVID-19 has placed a great strain on resources available to support women.
In his press release April 30, the president of public prosecution, Mohamed Abdennabaoui, called for the activation of existing platforms to receive domestic violence complaints. He urged concerned institutions to focus on complaints regarding violence against women, “giving them importance and priority.” He also asked prosecutors to continue monitoring statistics on violence against women. “I ask you to give them the necessary attention, implement them with due diligence, and notify me of the results of their implementation and the problems that confront you,” Abdennabaoui said. The Moroccan Minister of Solidarity, Social Development and Family, Jamila El Moussali El Moussali underlined the priority to shield and assist women subjected to domestic violence, which has witnessed a global increase during pandemic confinement.
The National Union of Moroccan Women (UNFM), a non-profit organisation chaired by Princess Lalla Meryem, has strengthened its platform called “Koulounamaak” (All with you) that assists women victim of domestic violence. The organisation strengthened their capacity to help women victims of domestic violence during this period of lockdown by, for instance, setting up a toll-free number, “8350”, and a platform to warn about violence against women, launched at the end of January 2020.
At the humanitarian level, Moroccan Midwives have played a major role in supporting pregnant women as part of the first phase of the SALAMA Operation by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The operation’s main objective is to distribute medical and hygiene kits as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus. Participating NGOs include the Moroccan Midwives Organization and the National Organization of Midwives of Morocco.
The Ennakhil Association received additional support from the United States Agency for International Development USAID as well as the United Kingdom to respond to the spike in gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 epidemic. Their program offers advocacy for GBV legislation, staffing and resourcing discrete listening centres for women seeking assistance, providing shelter in severe cases of abuse, and vocational training for women who are at highest risk and must flee their homes.
The situation is far from an acceptable state and the COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted issues that were already present in Morocco. The Moroccan government and institutions have overlooked the risk of increased domestic violence both before and during the lockdown. In particular, the Ministry for Solidarity, Social Development, Equality and Family has failed to offer the necessary preventive measures to protect women victims in due time. The government remained silent on the issue for the great majority of the lockdown period, despite repeated demands from associations dealing with violence against women and gender-based violence to speak up. 
While it is reassuring that a lot of NGOs, other organisations, and in a very small part the government are acting to improve the situation, it is not enough. What we need is a more wide and deep approach that would shape people’s minds and culture. As El Moussali said, “it is impossible to establish women’s active participation in society without shaking up mentalities and changing the negative image of women in the media, as well as societal stereotypes.” According to the minister, realizing this type of reform will require solid economic programs and legislation and the transformation that the world is experiencing should be the right occasion of reviewing and establishing new and more fair norms and behaviour.