A couple purchases orange juice in Rabat, Morocco. (Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP)

Late last month, a teenage girl in Morocco told local media she had been violently kidnapped, raped and branded by a gang. The incident was covered around the world and has sparked growing concerns about violence against women in Morocco.

Now the Moroccan government is hailing an anti-violence-against-women law that took effect this week after five years of efforts to get it passed. The law offers a variety of protections for women who report harassment or violence in Morocco, bans forced marriage, and mandates fines and even short prison sentences for people convicted of sexual harassment in a public space. It is the first time that women in Morocco will have legal pathways to seek justice from such behavior.

Bassima Hakkaoui, the country’s minister for women’s issues, told the official Maghreb Arabe Presse news agency that it is “one of the most important texts strengthening the national legal arsenal in the area of equality of the sexes.”

But critics say the long-sought-after law still falls short of giving women the protections they need. “The law that was adopted yesterday disappointed us enormously,” said Nouzha Skalli, the former minister for women’s affairs, to Jeune Afrique magazine after the bill passed in February. “It only modified some articles of the penal code and can’t be considered like a great breakthrough in the struggle against violence against women.”

Skalli has raised concerns that the legislation does not specifically criminalize marital rape and said that some parts of the text are too ambiguous. She told Jeune Afrique that “rape is still considered a violation of [a woman’s] modesty, even though international law defines it as a violation of women’s physical integrity.”

“Clearly, it contains certain positive things,” Skalli said of the legislation. “But it is surely not a revolution.”

Violence against women is widespread in Morocco. A 2009 government survey asked women between the ages of 18 to 65 whether they had been victims of various forms of violence, including physical and psychological. Nearly 63 percent said yes.

But Morocco has historically lacked legal avenues for women to pursue justice over such abuse. Even now, advocates fear that the new law will not, in practice, make justice much more accessible for victims. A Human Rights Watch statement issued in February said that “most women drop the few criminal cases that are filed as a result of pressure from their or their abuser’s families or because they are financially dependent on their abusers.” And Human Rights Watch has criticized the fact that the law does not specifically define domestic violence.

Samira Raiss, a Moroccan women’s rights activist, told the BBC that “this law is an asset but it has shortcomings that we have to work on.”

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