Aicha Ech Channa is changing societal perceptions of unwed mothers in Morocco, from a socially taboo group to an included and recognized population. By pushing forward legal reforms and developing the first program in Morocco to serve unwed mothers, Aicha is a national figure and advocate for all people.
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Over the last quarter century, Aicha has been a tireless advocate for the social inclusion and equal treatment of unwed mothers. A pioneer of the field, Aicha has built a nationally relevant support model for unwed mothers and institutionalized legal reforms to support their recognition in society.
Aicha’s Association Solidarité Féminine (ASF) has offered thousands of unwed mothers a shelter where they and their children are supported unconditionally. Approximately 100 women per year also participate in a three-year program, where they are offered psychological counseling and medical treatment as well as vocational programs which teach them new skills to become better prepared to enter the job market, thereby, gaining autonomy and a steady source of income. ASF also provides day care centers, both while women are preparing for future employment and after they have achieved it.
Beyond directly serving unwed mothers, Aicha has developed a dual strategy to increase paternal recognition and support for children born out of wedlock. She advocates for legal reform that requires fathers to take paternity tests, while she also mediates between mothers and fathers about the importance of parenting roles.
Traditionally, in Islamic societies like Morocco, unmarried mothers are not supposed to exist. To become pregnant out of wedlock is not only regarded as extremely disrespectful to the community, but traditionally, it is illegal. These women and their families are condemned by Moroccan society and most families simply reject their unmarried daughters, leaving them to care for themselves and their children. Without the support of family members it is difficult for unmarried mothers to find a safe place to leave their children so that they can find work.
There is also little support given to unmarried women within the Moroccan medical system. If a woman goes to a maternity unit and does not have a husband, the medical staff is obliged to call the police. The mother must appear before a judge who then generally rules that she is a prostitute since there is no other way to publicly acknowledge and recognize her pregnancy. In the past, women were sentenced to six months in jail, but because of the growing prison population, most unwed mothers now are simply fined. However, the US$50 to $100 fine is an exorbitant sum for most unwed mothers, and ironically, many have to work as prostitutes to pay the fine. This puts them at-risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. In this environment, the experience of mothering a child out of wedlock can shatter a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth. In the end, many mothers become convinced that their babies are “children of shame” and thus treat them as such.
Because unwed mothers are often stigmatized, it is difficult to gather statistics that precisely describe the scale and severity of their social exile in the Maghreb and larger Arab World. However, the few official statistics and field studies in Arab countries indicate that the number of unwed mothers is on the rise. For example, in Casablanca alone, two of every five births are considered illegitimate. There are no official statistics for home births, abortions, or cases of infanticide. In Tunisia, statistics show that about 1,200 births occur out of legal wedlock every year. Many of these births are born out of common law marriages. A common law or orfi marriage is a simple contract drawn between the two partners and two witnesses. Historically, Islam’s nomadic roots made this type of marriage ordinary, since there were long periods without access to a licensed marriage official. Today, this type of marriage is frequently used by young people to circumvent the prohibition of premarital sex, since a proper marriage requires a great deal of money. Due to the motivations behind common law marriages, often the couple keeps it a secret. This inevitably becomes a problem if the woman becomes pregnant. The man may decide to leave her rather than risk losing his honor, while the woman is left alone to establish his paternity and receive support for her child.
Due to the taboo nature of unwed pregnancies, as many as 600 to 900 Moroccan women secretly undergo abortions every year, according to a survey carried out by the Moroccan Family Association. The underground “clinics” that serve these women are frequently ill-equipped and staffed by poorly-trained doctors and nurses. These clinics represent a serious danger to the health of both the mother and the child. Women unable to afford an abortion, or who decide that the procedure conflicts too strongly with their personal beliefs and traditions, become society’s scapegoats and are socially isolated; one response is the abandonment of out of wedlock children. In Morocco alone, over 5,000 children are abandoned each year.
Aicha launched the Association for Women’s Solidarity in 1985 to provide unwed mothers with the necessary skills to care for themselves and their children. Initially, she ran the center out of a basement in Casablanca, which served as a welcoming shelter and a place to be cared for, away from social stigma.
As Aicha realized the spectrum of support required beyond shelter, she grew the program, beginning with a daycare. The daycare, at the time, was supported by another organization that required the mothers to work in order to receive access to services. Aicha realized that it was very difficult for women to find work, given their social situation, and she resolved to address this issue. She convinced the National Union of Moroccan Women to donate a space where unwed mothers could cook various snacks and then built an infrastructure to resell these snacks as an income-generation strategy. Aicha was always preoccupied with ensuring that the women did not begin to expect handouts from her organization. To do this, initially ASF finances 75 percent of the costs related to their children’s needs (i.e. medicine and food), but mothers are expected to pay the remaining expenses to learn how to be independent.
From its humble beginnings, the association offers unwed mothers a three-year program whereby they become more independent each year. The central component is a vocational program where more than 50 women a year receive training in cooking, baking, sewing, and accounting. Program participants split their days between training programs and paid employment in the association’s income-generating programs, including its three daycare centers and capacity-building institutes, two restaurants, four kiosks (small shops) and a hammam (fitness center and spa). The association also operates a support center, which receives about 600 visits a year and provides medical care. Over the last five years, 433 women were part of the association’s intensive rehabilitation programs and 3,000 received help and referrals at the job listing center.
Through their employment experiences women are encouraged to start and manage their own businesses. For example, when Aicha learned that a participant had made enough income to rent out her own kiosk, she decided to launch a program to rent kiosks to program graduates. Many women eventually buy and run them themselves and the three-year program is now designed to help them reach this goal. In the first year or two of the program, the entrepreneurs are trained as sales women and receive micro-loans to buy basic cooking materials or merchandise. Once these loans are paid back and they have grown a client base, ASF gives them the opportunity to rent the kiosks.
All along, Aicha knew that changing public opinion was as important as offering unwed mothers new opportunities and a place in society. The intense social stigma around single motherhood since 1985 has been subdued to the extent that Princess Lalla Salma, wife of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, visited ASF to witness the opening of the hammam in 2004, representing the start of a discourse among the royal family as well as a demonstration of the program’s successful expansion. Aicha’s work has received further legitimacy as a result of an aggressive communications strategy, which includes a strong media presence in local and international press, as well as on public television. Among the influential media channels she has chosen to target is Al Jazeera, which recently produced and aired a 45-minute interview in Arabic throughout the Middle East. Although many religious leaders have condemned Aicha to death as a result of this interview and many others, she is adamant that public education and transforming societal perceptions about unwed mothers are necessary tactics.
With support programs up and running as models for the rest of Moroccan society, Aicha turned her attention to changing public policy. The work of Aicha and other leaders in her field has helped to shape the evolution of government policy toward unwed mothers, most notably with the 2004 family law. Referred to as the Mudawana (family law), it was enacted after an active and open debate which engaged religious and secular bodies across Moroccan society. This new code, while still incomplete in addressing all challenges, was a progressive step toward bridging differences between the values and social benefits of religion and tradition, and the reality of changing norms. Extramarital sex is no longer a crime and paternity tests have become accepted as an appropriate way to hold fathers accountable for their children. (Morocco is the first Arab country to impose DNA tests.) The law also gives women the right to marry without the assent of a male legal guardian (i.e. customarily a father or brother) and the right to initiate divorce. In addition, it has abolished “repudiation,” the practice by which a man could annul his marriage by a simple declaration of his will to do so.
Since the passing of the Mudawana, Aicha and her staff have begun to help women identify the fathers of their children. She has developed a dual strategy of advocating for legal reform to require fathers to take paternity tests while also mediating personally between unwed mothers and the fathers—to convince the men of the importance of recognizing their child and providing some form of support for the mother. Between August 2005 and August 2006, the association persuaded 60 men to take DNA tests, while only two DNA paternity tests were imposed by judges in an application of the new Mudawana code.
Aicha’s vision is for ASF to be a model in the Arab World. She will continue to communicate the success of her programs to change mentalities, break taboos and inspire other Arab groups to tackle the issue of unwed mothers. Aicha also wants sexual education in formal education to become the norm, a practice she believes is correlated to the prominence of unwed mothers. She is also working to increase the financial sustainability of the model developed by ASF, which is 50 percent self-financed through its income-generation programs and has been independently replicated by numerous associations in Morocco.
Throughout her childhood, Aicha learned the importance of social networks and solidarity. At the age of three, her father passed away, and a few months later she also lost her younger sister. Being raised by a single mother was not well-accepted in Moroccan society, but thanks to the help of some of her father’s friends, she was able to study in a distinguished French primary school, which her mother would not have been able to afford. Aicha’s family also received considerable support from social workers.
In 1953 King Mohammed V was exiled to France, and Pacha El Glaoui began governing the city of Marrakesh, where Aicha grew up. This was a pivotal event in her life as it led her stepfather (her mother had remarried) to decide, as decreed by the Pacha government, that it was not appropriate for girls to study. He also forced her to start wearing a white headscarf. Aicha’s mother, in disagreement, daringly sent her off on a bus, alone, to live with her aunt in Casablanca to pursue her high school studies. Aicha’s mother eventually decided to take a second risky decision by divorcing her husband a few years later and moving to Casablanca to be reunited with her.
At 15, Aicha was determined to move out of her aunt’s tiny apartment with her mother. She became the breadwinner of the household at the age of 16 when she took up a job as a prestigious doctor’s social-medical assistant. Aicha’s co-workers quickly noticed that she was very competent and particularly valued her ability to listen and to empathize with others. One of her social worker colleagues insisted that she take the exam to become a nurse, and ensured her that she would take care of the school fees if she passed. Eventually, Aicha and her colleague convinced her university to give her a job, in addition to her scholarship.
While completing her studies, Aicha began to work for the Ministry of Public Health, delivering hygienic education workshops. She worked in many orphanages and began to notice the issue of abandoned children. Aicha’s boss at the Ministry of Public Health had also taught her considerably about the taboo topic of planned parenting. Aicha became involved with a youth group and resolved to make family planning education one of their main goals.
Encouraged by another colleague, Aicha later decided to become a social worker. During that time, she witnessed unwed mothers in need of government assistance get turned away on a daily basis. She heard stories from these women of sexual violence, extreme physical and emotional suffering, and utter despair. Aicha resolved to dedicate her life to changing the social situation of unwed Moroccan mothers, soon after, she founded ASF.
Over 25 years, Aicha has faced many tests and challenges, including a government official decrying she be stoned, and in 2000, the threat of assassination for encouraging “sinful” behavior. The same year, King Mohammed VI gave her a medal and financial support. Despite all of this, Aicha has drastically changed society’s perception of unwed mothers and their children, drawing strength from the humanity of the women and children with whom she works.
Aicha founded and served as president of a women’s solidarity organization and is currently a prominent member of the Moroccan League for Childhood Protection. Her achievements have garnered much attention in the local, national, and international media; Aicha is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Opus Prize (2009).