Morocco’s safe haven for single mothers
|June 03rd, 2016|
|tags:||equality, Morocco, Moudawana, Muslim, single mother|
For 75-year-old Aicha Ech Channa, the inner drive to make life better for the rejected unwed Moroccan women was sparked when she was working as a young social worker in a hospital.
A young single mother had gone to the hospital to give up her child for adoption, as was required by law. The young woman was breastfeeding her child. “When it was time to give up the child, the young woman forcibly took away her breast from the baby’s mouth, the milk sprayed all over the baby’s face and the baby cried endlessly. This cry was in my head. And that night, I did not sleep. I swore to myself I would do something,” said Channa in a press release upon receiving the prestigious Opus Dei Prize for her role in giving single mothers another chance at life.
The deeply religious North African country has traditionally ostracized unwed mothers, with their children being christened bastards. Becoming pregnant out of marriage has been treated as both disrespectful and illegal.
Traditionally, if a woman went to seek medical attention in a maternity unit without a husband, the medical staff were obliged to call the police. When taken to court, the judge would rule that the woman is a prostitute, since she cannot produce a husband to claim the pregnancy. Such charges would attract a six month jail sentence, but as prisons started getting congested, the unwed mothers would instead receive a fine of between $50 and $100. Still, this was out of reach for most of these single mothers.
Such punitive actions pushed more women into secret abortions in the kinds of back-street clinics that are generally ill equipped. Between 600 and 900 women were reported to be procuring abortions each year in Morocco according to a 2010 survey by Moroccan family planning association The Association Marocaine de Planification Familiale . For the women who would carry their pregnancies to full term, they would later abandon their children for fear of societal backlash. Up to 5,000 children would be abandoned every year.
Such misery pushed Channa to start a not-for-profit organization that would give a safe haven for single mothers while assisting them with psychological support and training that would make them self-sufficient. “Most of them come from poor backgrounds. Others have been raped. Nobody wants them. They are alone, depressed and with no means of surviving. I had to do something about it,” said Channa.
In 1985, Association Solidarité Féminine (ASF) was launched in a basement with little resources but an abundance of willpower from Channa. Single mothers would receive counselling and training on cooking, baking and sewing. The organization has now grown to include restaurants and kiosks where single mothers bake and sell food to earn a living. The center also has a hammam – a kind of sauna – and a crèche that takes care of children as their mothers work.
But it has been a long and tough journey for Channa. While she has been vocal and outspoken, calling for the rights of single mothers to be recognized and for children born out of marriage to receive key government documents, she has received threats from both political and religious fronts. At one time a government official called for her stoning, while Muslim leaders rallied for her to be assassinated, branding her an infidel who supported debauchery and sinful behaviour. Still she remained unfazed. Her tenacity would catch the eye of the country’s top leadership. King Mohammed VI decorated her for her work and recognized Association Solidarité Féminine as a charitable institution.
In 2004 the government also passed the Moudawana, a family law that gave women more say in marriage, including granting them wider access to child custody, the right to seek divorce and women’s entitlement to inheritance.
Still, the issue of single mothers remained a dicey one which saw them being denied certain services. The gravity of such was brought to the fore in 2011, when 25 year old Fadwa Laroui, a single mother of two who had protested being denied social housing, set herself on fire in front of central Morocco’s city hall. An amateur video posted on Youtube showed men running to rescue her but as she screamed in pain she pushed them away. She would die two days later in hospital.
The pursuit of a society that treats single mothers equally still remains a cause Channa has pursued with missionary zeal. It is this dedication and formidable purpose that saw her recognized as the 2009 overall winner of the $1 million US Opus Prize that fetes outstanding global achievements in addressing grave social problems. She was the first Muslim to receive the prestigious award.