Making stepping out of home safer for women and girls in Marrakech

There is hardly a woman or a girl, in urban and rural areas alike, who has not experienced sexual harassment or the threat of sexual violence in public spaces. Unwanted sexual remarks and jokes, groping, indecent exposure and many other forms of sexual harassment are often trivialized and rarely legislated. As women’s voices around the world rise in protest, UN Women’s Safe City programme in Marrakech has engaged people from all walks of life—from bus and taxi drivers to journalists—to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.


Women participating in neighborhood safety audits. Photo: UN Women/Kimja Vanderheyden
Women participating in neighborhood safety audits. Photo: UN Women/Kimja Vanderheyden

As a woman, going out of the house and being in public spaces in Marrakech entails navigating unwanted sexual remarks, touches or worse, almost on a daily basis. Although often trivialized, sexual harassment against women and girls severely limits their mobility and opportunities for education, work and recreation.

The last national survey in Morocco (2009) estimated that 62.8 per cent of women living in urban areas experienced gender-based violence in public spaces. A 2015 local survey conducted by IMADEL, a non-profit organization in the Guéliz district of Marrakech, found that 67 per cent of women had experienced some form of violence in public spaces in the past 12 months. As a result, 60 per cent of women said they did not leave their home unaccompanied after dark, and only 9 per cent of women said they reported the incident of sexual harassment to the police.

To address the rampant sexual harassment, UN Women launched a city-wide initiative in 2014 in Marrakech, as part of its Global Flagship Programme Initiative Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces, with support from the Spanish Agency of International Development Cooperation, and in collaboration with city and regional authorities, women’s groups and UN partners. The programme engages people from all parts of society—from city officials to transportation workers and media professionals—to understand where and how women feel most vulnerable, who the perpetrators are, and what kind of interventions would be most effective.

Since public transportation and streets were the most common spaces in which sexual harassment occurred, the programme engaged transportation workers in prevention efforts. Taxi drivers were sensitized on sexual harassment in streets, and mobilized by trade unions and IMADEL, UN Women’s local partner, to take action.

Haja Naima, a former taxi driver, illustrates the stereotypes of the taxi business: “When I worked as a taxi driver, I often heard criticisms and insults from my male colleagues; one of them told me to go knead bread and prepare lunch,” shared Naima, who was among the few women taxi drivers in the city. “This work is not for women, go home,” she was told.

But Naima knew that she was just as capable, and more trusted, than her male colleagues.

She had many female clients who preferred to ride with her, as they didn’t want to be in a taxi with a man for fear of sexual harassment. However, Naima had to eventually quit her job because of harassment and social pressure. Today she is active in awareness-raising activities organized as part of the Safe Cities programme.

In 2015, UN Women also developed a new partnership with a private bus company ALSA, which provides a large network of buses throughout Marrakech, and integrated sexual violence prevention in ALSA‘s drivers' training modules. Since then, 1,520 drivers were trained on responding to sexual harassment in and around buses and bus stops.

Abdallah Lembarki, bus driver at ALSA one of the beneficiaries of the Safe Cities Marrakech training programme. Photo: UN Women/Hassan Chabbi
Abdallah Lembarki, bus driver at ALSA one of the beneficiaries of the Safe Cities Marrakech training programme. Photo: UN Women/Hassan Chabbi

“We bus drivers are [often] the first witnesses of sexual harassment in public transport. Before, we did not know how to react in these cases,” said local bus driver, Abdellah Lambarki. “The training programme, which we follow within ALSA, brings us the necessary knowledge to ensure safety in our buses. With our management, we have developed procedures that allow us to take immediate action to protect bus passengers from various acts of violence. Indeed, it is our responsibility, as citizens and drivers, to provide a safe space for all users,” he added.

In Morocco, despite the high number of incidences of violence against women in public spaces, the draft law on violence against women is yet to be adopted, and sexual harassment in public spaces is still not legally recognized.

Preventing sexual harassment also requires a shift in public perceptions and views, since it’s largely trivialized and normalized. “Women are often portrayed in the media as entertainment figures…. their image is depicted as inferior [to men] and provocative,” observes Mohamed El Kennour, a journalist who has worked with a number of major Moroccan and Arab print media for 25 years. El Kennour was one of 27 local journalists who received training on how to improve women’s representation in the media, as part of the Safe City and Safe Public Spaces programme in Marrakech. 

Rochri Ahmimid, beneficiary of the taxi drivers training programme. Photo: UN Women/Hassan Chabbi
Rochri Ahmimid, beneficiary of the taxi drivers training programme. Photo: UN Women/Hassan Chabbi

“It is our responsibility to cut existing stereotypes in the media, and to approach our reports and articles on women from a human rights and equality perspective,” he says.

“Women and girls experience sexual harassment in all types of public spaces: on the streets, in buses, in taxis, on the beach, in cafés… There are many actors and many bystanders. Therefore, everyone must be involved in efforts to reduce this violence and in making women feel safe in public spaces, so that they can enjoy their freedom and benefit, equally as men, from the city’s public services,” says Leila Rhiwi, UN Women Representative in Morocco.

The first-ever participatory safety audit in Morocco was completed last year, led by 36 women in the neighbourhoods of Douar Sraghna and Hay Izdihar. Gradually, people’s attitudes are starting to change. For many women, the process of leading safety audits, providing recommendations to the city officials and speaking out about the harassment they have suffered for so long, has been empowering. As one woman participant of the safety audit expressed: “No one had ever asked me what my concerns were about the neighbourhood. This process has been very powerful for me.” 

The programme in Marrakech is part of UN Women’s Global Flagship Programme Initiative, Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces, supported by over 15 donors from public and private sectors, currently spanning 27 cities around the world.