This International Women’s Day, Inside Arabia had the chance to sit down with one of the MENA region’s most outspoken advocates for women’s rights – Fadoua Bakhadda. Bakhadda, 39, has been Executive Director of the Moroccan Family Planning Association (AMPF) for eight years. During that time she has transformed it from near bankruptcy into a top-performing member organization of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).
Bakhadda is optimistic about the state of women’s rights in Morocco in 2020 and has a clear vision on what the next steps need to be.
How did you get into sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)?
Fadoua Bakhadda: “My story began when I was 18. When I left school, I decided I wanted to become a doctor, so I left Morocco to study medicine in Senegal, at Cheikh Anta Diop University. It started well, but in my second year I became very ill. I was initially diagnosed with malaria, which turned out to be typhoid. The illness caused me to return to Morocco, where my father told me that he didn’t want me to go back to Senegal, for fear of getting sick again.
I decided to transfer my credits and study at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Northern Morocco. I picked it because it was near Meknes, where I was born. Unfortunately, they did not offer medicine as a subject, so I switched and ended up with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. At the time, my father was running three companies and he wanted me to be in charge of auditing the finances.
Senegal was the first place where I had seen poverty, experienced hardship, and understood what it means to be desperate. It made me want to engage in social action.
I agreed to do it, but I promised myself that, if I could survive my health problems, I would do something to help others. Senegal was the first place where I had seen poverty, experienced hardship, and understood what it means to be desperate. It made me want to engage in social action. I started by giving lessons to orphans, mainly in mathematics, French, and English.
After graduating, I worked for a short time in the textiles exports, but quickly returned to social activism, working for an association promoting small and medium-sized enterprises. After this I worked for Oxfam, while at the same time studying for a Master’s in Business Administration, focusing on Management. But I never lost my love for medical issues and I joined AMPF in 2012.
At AMPF I found that I had really benefited from my time away from medicine, studying and working in business. When I arrived, the association was almost bankrupt but, using my business knowledge and a new strategic framework, I was able to redress it over the past eight years. Even though it is an NGO, I run it like a social enterprise, which has helped to overcome the problems we had. Today, our income is three times what it was before. We now have 83 staff, over 100 volunteers, and 99 young members. Our members are mainly from Morocco, but also from the rest of the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa.
After joining AMPF, I began to do research for a PhD thesis about abortion, publishing articles and acquiring manuscripts about the issue. We then fought to bring about a new law on abortion in Morocco, working with the Ministry of Health and the Moroccan Human Rights Council. The new law has now been officially approved by the king and is awaiting ratification.”
What was it like growing up in Morocco when it came to SRHR?
Fadoua Bakhadda: “I am Moroccan, and I think that working on SRHR is a very meaningful thing to do in this country. My great-grandmother died because of [lack of] reproductive health. She had no access to it and, throughout her life, was pregnant every two years or so. She died giving birth to her eleventh child. But more than my nationality and family history, I fight for SRHR because they affect everyone – these rights serve the basic needs of human beings. It is something to fight for, not only for adolescents, but for all people at all stages of life. I would care about this wherever I was from.
I am reasonably pleased with the state of reproductive rights in Morocco, but on sexual rights we still have a long way to go.
I am reasonably pleased with the state of reproductive rights in Morocco, but on sexual rights we still have a long way to go. The model we use on reproductive rights and family planning was founded in the early 1970s, as was our association. In 1972, Morocco held the first international conference at which Islamic leaders made recommendations on matters of abortion and family planning. Still today, there are many countries that follow the guidelines laid down at that conference.
Regarding sexual rights, we are far behind where we need to be. Ministry of Health studies have shown that boys become sexually active at 16 at the earliest; girls at 18 at the earliest. On average, men get married at 31 and women at 28. So, there is more than a ten-year gap here of potentially unsafe sexual practices that are not even officially recognized in the law. What are we saying? That no one is doing anything for ten years? We need to open our eyes.
We also cannot just say that we are not concerned about it – we have to be concerned about it for our kids’ sake. We have to invest in prevention and education. That’s why today we are striving to create comprehensive sexual education in the school curriculum, starting with an observatory, which we are running in partnership with the Faculty of Education Science at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat. This follows on the international symposium on sexual education that we organized last year, which was given the high patronage of our king. The observatory will be an academic hub, which gathers people to think, discuss, and do research. It is open to academic staff, university [personnel], and education teachers, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students.
When it comes to SRHR what does Morocco need to focus on?
Fadoua Bakhadda: “For me, abortion is the main issue at the moment. As I said, we managed to get a new abortion law approved by the king, which is awaiting ratification. This new law will permit abortions in the case of rape, incest, and fatal malformation. Currently, abortions are only permitted to save the life of the mother.
The most significant part of my role in the process happened in Geneva, at the UN Human Rights Council in 2017, during that year’s Universal Periodic Review. I was able to convince Slovenia to make a recommendation to Morocco about abortion. The recommendation required that abortion would be permitted in the case of rape or incest based only on a police report, without any requirement for the woman seeking the abortion to appear in a Moroccan court. Morocco accepted.
People often argue that the abortion rights we are calling for should only apply to married people, but I always give the same answer: Do you think that unmarried people don’t deserve it? Are they not human beings too?”
How hard has it been to bring about change?
Fadoua Bakhadda: “It was hard in the past, but it’s not hard to make change anymore. I think if a big social movement happened in Morocco right now, it would be enough to bring about all the changes we want. All the pieces are in place; the puzzle is almost finished. The current king is much more progressive than many of the people in his government. As I said, King Mohammed VI has approved our new abortion proposal, he pardoned Hajar Raissouni, he gave his high patronage to our international symposium on comprehensive sexual education in the curriculum—all of these are very helpful signs of what is ahead.”
How do you believe you can build a movement to effect the change you want to see?
Fadoua Bakhadda: “We need two things, which must work together. First, we need a large number of people, mobilized, calling for their rights. Second, we need a sympathetic government to work in parallel. Laws must reflect social change.
We have already made a lot of the changes that need to be made. Plus, we have a lot of allies in the feminist movement who are working with us to do more. Feminist coalitions today are more and more interested in the things we are arguing for. Just a few weeks ago, we held the first national consortium for NGOs on sexual and reproductive health rights.
I am hopeful about the new generation, groups like Droit et Justice in Casablanca, and their ability to bring about the kind of change we are fighting for.
The feminist movement was very effective in Morocco in the 1970s, with organizations like the IPDF (Initiative Pour le Development de la Femme, or “Initiative for Women’s Development”). Today, most of those leaders are older and are not always social media savvy. But I am hopeful about the new generation, groups like Droit et Justice in Casablanca, and their ability to bring about the kind of change we are fighting for. Youtubers, podcasters…these people will be a big part of the fight for the next step.”
What are you going to do to celebrate International Women’s Day this year?
Fadoua Bakhadda: “In March we will be signing a new partnership between ourselves (AMPF), UNFPA, and a national coalition of la’douls. La’douls are the authorities that sign marriages into law in Morocco. We will be working to develop a guide with tools to enable young people to marry and have safe sexual relationships. Other than that, I will be hanging out with my husband, our three kids, and our dog, Rocky.”