“I always feared the police. You hear stories of women going to the police station to report their violent husbands and they get told ‘you deserve it’. Then she must wait in a room full of men, feeling vulnerable and misjudged. On the way to the police station, I was terrified. After what I went through, the last thing I wanted was to feel embarrassed, ridiculed or humiliated,” recalls Amina*, a survivor of violence in Morocco.
Though Morocco adopted a law in 2018 criminalizing physical, psychological, sexual and economic violence against women in private and public spheres, most instances still go unreported: only 1 in 10 women experiencing violence lodges a complaint with the police or other authorities. In cases of domestic violence, the numbers drop even further.
Through an ongoing partnership between the General Directorate of National Security and UN Women, carried out with funding and support from the Government of Canada, Morocco is working to improve police and justice services for survivors of gender-based violence—part of a larger effort to protect and strengthen women’s rights in the country.
Transforming initial contact with police
When police provide survivor-centred and trauma-informed service, it helps ensure the survivor’s safety and minimize her risk of victimization. One survivor’s positive initial contact experience with the justice system can also encourage other survivors to go to the police.
It was with these outcomes in mind that the General Directorate of National Security, supported by UN Women, began rethinking their handling of gender-based violence. In 2018, they restructured the Police Units for Women Victims of Violence in all 132 principal police stations across the country, designating a focal point in each of the 440 district police stations to refer survivors to the nearest unit.
As an initial contact point, the Units are designed to make survivors feel heard and protected, as well as to record and refer their cases. Each Unit is staffed with a trained police chief and a police officer whose job it is to demonstrate the police force’s commitment to the survivor’s well-being, and support their path to justice without discrimination, bias or pre-judgement.
“It takes a lot of determination and courage for women to ask the police for support. Our role is to give survivors all the time they need to feel safe and comfortable, and for them to trust us enough to tell their story,” explains Police Chief Saliha Najeh. Chiefs of the Police Units for Women Victims of Violence are appointed on their merits and sensitivity to the issue. They receive training from UN Women on survivor-centered approaches and international norms and standards for police handling of such cases.
“On the way to the police station, I was afraid that they would ignore me and that they wouldn’t believe me,” says Layla*, who was abused, pregnant and unmarried when she sought help. Her fears were compounded by the fact that sexual relations outside of marriage are illegal in Morocco.
“But when I arrived, I was warmly welcomed. The first thing she told me was that there is a solution to everything. I will never forget that. It has become my motto in life. Her words encouraged me to tell her the whole story,” says Layla. “At the time, I felt insecure, unsafe, and that my life was over, but meeting her made me realize that I still have a chance to get my life back.”
The experience made Layla feel less alone: “After contacting the police unit, I felt empowered and, most of all, supported. It felt so good to be surrounded by caring people.” The unit later referred Layla to a shelter for single mothers, which enabled her to complete her higher education while taking care of her child.
Putting survivor-centred approaches at the heart of policing and justice services
Building on the success of the restructured Police Units, the General Directorate of National Security and UN Women also developed a toolkit, funded by the Government of Canada, to train the entire police sector on survivor-centered approaches.
Samia el Hamdaoui, a Deputy Public Prosecutor, was one of 45 participants who attended a training in 2019. “It is impossible to walk out of the training the same way you walked in. When the views you have on certain issues change, it impacts the whole process of caring for women who have experienced violence,” says Samia. “I’ve learned that being an active listener and showing empathy helps survivors, and ultimately our efforts to provide support for them.”
Now, 30 Police Chiefs of Units for Women Victims of Violence are equipped to provide these trainings to police at all levels. Put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Units for continued operation and service delivery for survivors of violence throughout the crisis. So did the courts: a 24-hour helpline was established that allowed survivors to report cases, and each court became available online, enabling women to declare and file a complaint without having to physically travel.
In 2021, in partnership with UNODC and the International Association of Women Police (IAWP), UN Women developed a Handbook on Gender-Responsive Police Services for Women and Girls Subject to Violence. Targeting police middle managers and first responders across the region, the Handbook gives practical, in-depth guidance on how to respond during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic; how to prevent violence against women and girls in conflict settings; and how to tackle violence online.