Discussions with Aicha Ech-Channa, Founder and President, Association Solidarité Féminine, Casablanca, Morocco
June 14, 2009
Background: In this discussion, which took place on June 14, 2009 as part of the Berkley Center's series on Practitioners and Faith-Inspired Development, Katherine Marshall sat down with Aicha Ech-Channa to discuss the stigma unmarried girls in Morocco face and what she does to change the situation. Winner of the one million dollar Opus Prize in 2009, Ech-Channa has worked for five decades to help unmarried women with children in Casablanca, Morocco.
You talk of sitting on a knife edge, with the needs and interests of young women with children born outside marriage on one side, and the dangers of provoking social backlash against all change on the other. Can you talk more about the dangers you see?
I came to understand, through my social work, the extraordinary suffering of young girls who become pregnant. They are often thrown out by their families, left on the street with no resources. They suffer from a deep and ancient taboo, one that was not even spoken about, that treats unmarried mothers as prostitutes, even if their pregnancy is the result (as is quite often the case) of abuse or rape. Religion plays its role because the condemnation of sex outside marriage is attributed to the Muslim faith. But it is only the woman, the mother, who is treated so harshly. The children born to unmarried mothers suffer also—without a name, without papers, they are condemned as bastards for life. Many abandoned babies died in orphanages or grew up scarred by their status.
The knife edge is how much it is possible to challenge the attitudes that produce this misery without provoking a backlash, from the society and especially from its conservative Islamist elements. Many have condemned any effort to help single mothers as encouraging prostitution, even as they claim to love and support children and families.
The family law reform of 2004 has helped to change law and attitude, but it is still far from being fully applied and has its gaps. Attitudes are changing, but slowly. So we need to move with caution but also with courage. The tensions can be seen in discussions about family planning, where it is still today unacceptable to talk about contraception outside marriage. Abortion is illegal, and though desperate women resort to illegal abortion, the topic cannot be discussed in public.
We are moving along a fine line, helping each individual we can to recapture her dignity, to keep her child when she can, and to make a new life for herself and her child. The mothers come to us deeply scarred, pained by their rejection, frightened for their future, and with few tools. Most are barely literate and have no resources. They may dream of love and marriage, but their options are few. Each case is a challenge, full of traumas. We see some remarkable successes but also too many failures.
Looking back, we can see changes in attitude. Illegitimate children are more accepted and the suffering of single mothers is more widely known and accepted. They have a chance today. But, in the name of religion and tradition, there are still many who condemn even a fifteen year old who was raped, as well as those willing to help her. So, I will continue to speak the truth wherever I have the chance.
Your life story is a remarkable journey and is inseparable from what you have achieved as a public, civil society leader in Morocco. What are some of the highlights?
Everyone seems to want me to talk about my life! I am very conscious that there were special turning points, and that at each, providence, the hand of God, was very present. I also benefitted so much from the solidarity and support of those around me that solidarity took on a special meaning. I talk often of Le coucou du Bon Dieu, those strokes of luck or blessings that came to me at each stage.
I often tell the story of a moment and an image that is still vivid in my mind. It comes to me when I cannot sleep, which is often.
I was working as a social worker, and I had just had a baby. A young girl was in the office near mine. She had the rounded, stooped shoulders that I have come to recognize as the sign of the shame she carried. She had her baby in her arms, breast-feeding it. The social worker gave her a paper to sign (with her thumbprint, as she was illiterate), and then reached out to take the baby. The girl was giving up her baby, as was the expectation, even requirement, at the time. The social worker pulled the baby away and a jet of milk squirted from the mother’s breast onto its face. The baby cried, and the mother had a desperate look. I could feel the pain she would feel in her breasts, as I was breast-feeding myself. I was determined to do something, though at the time I had no idea what I could or would do.
There were many other events, women, and babies that made me more and more determined to act.
I was working as a social worker. A young girl had come seeking help. It was one of the rare years when the celebrations of the births of Mohammed and Jesus came at the same time. She had the same stooped shoulders. Her mother had thrown her out and told her harshly to go “empty your belly” and return. She said that the father, a policeman, had a gun and would kill her. The parents did not want to know who the father of the baby was, and they had done nothing to protect their daughter. As a social worker, I went to the house with a friend who was a nun, who worked for Caritas, to talk to her family. It was a rainy day. At first they received us badly, hardly willing to open the door. But we said that we were the guests of God, building on the tradition of hospitality that says you must welcome the stranger when it is raining. They reluctantly let us into the house. I asked to see the father, the policeman. Marie and I prayed. The father arrived. We repeated that we were guests sent by God and, in keeping with the culture, he accepted that. I asked to talk to him alone, in a room with a door that closed. He agreed and took us to a room. He locked the door. I asked him to give me the key. He gave it to me. I asked if he had a gun. He said yes. “Put it in the cupboard,” I said. He did. I put the key in my bra. I talked to him as a human being, as the papa of the girl. He agreed to accept her with her child. This was one case where the women were harsher than the men, more ready to attack the girl and reject her.
Another girl, a student of social studies in a nursing school, came seeking help. She was pregnant. The man involved wanted to marry her. But her father would not agree. He saw shame and wanted to give a virgin daughter in marriage. She had lost her spirit, but she wanted to keep the baby. I was able to help her. Years later, I was talking at a meeting organized by UNICEF about the Association. A lovely young woman came up to me and asked if I remembered her. “I am Rachida,” she said, but I know so many Rachidas. “My daughter knows about you, as the one who saved her.” Sometimes the stories turn out well.
But what inspired you to take the next step?
I was determined to act, because the fate of an abandoned baby then was so terrible. A baby born to an unmarried mother would have on their birth certificate simply “father ‘X’, mother ‘X’,” and would be sent to the orphanage. There, most of them died because the conditions were terrible.
Once in the 1970s, during a very cold winter, I passed by a hospital, where there was a nursery full of abandoned babies. These babies were to be transferred to an orphanage in Casablanca. They were blue. They were cold. When I asked why, I learned that they were just dropped off and the mothers had nothing to leave with them. The hospital did not have the resources to fill the gap.
My journey led me along the way to work often with a French nun, Marie-Jean Tinturier, who was also a social worker. We met many young women and realized that, often, they did not want to abandon their babies. We also realized that, however hard the lives ahead, the babies needed their mothers. There was no substitute for the mother’s love. And I heard the same story again and again, of love for a man, a wish to marry him, but broken promises and harsh families.
What led you specifically to create the Association and to hammer out the philosophy that has guided its development?
The long journey and stories I heard had left me with many questions and few answers. Then, in 1982, two events came together: a census of the Moroccan population and a first Islamic Summit in Casablanca. As a social worker, I was assigned to work at the large fair building in Casablanca, where the government had gathered hundreds of people from the streets. I was innocent at the time, and assumed it had something to do with the census. But a doctor working there led me to understand that the idea was to clear the streets for the Summit. I despaired at the suffering I saw there, gathered together, and at our helplessness to do anything. You could not imagine what kinds of misery we saw. This was a poverty and depth of misery that was not talked about, not known in Morocco at the time. The doctor said to me, “Be a witness, for now. That is what you can do.”
I built some alliances that were solidified by that experience. The doctor has become a lifelong friend. He encouraged and supported research about the problems of people living on the street, and earned his Ph.D. in psychiatry, with a thesis on the topic “Homelessness in Casablanca.” A civil society organization, Terre des Hommes, a Swiss organization that was working in Morocco at the time, was an early ally. Sister Marie-Jean was my companion. We became close. I loaned files from my office to the doctor to support research that would document the problem. We continued to follow up on cases that came to us and sometimes we were able to achieve results, to persuade families to accept their daughters, or the fathers of the babies to marry the young woman, or to get the vital papers for mothers and children that gave them some status, however difficult. But the solutions were far too few, and too fragile. There were so many cases and they were so heartbreaking—the 9-year-old raped by a relative and covered by burn marks, or the so many little girls sent as maids to the city and abused in the households that were supposed to protect them.
So, in 1985, we decided to start a program—we did not call it an association at first. We began in a basement, in a corner that a women’s organization kindly provided as somewhere where we could work. We started very small and grew over the years. We conducted no studies and we had no resources. Everyone was a volunteer (I continued as a government social worker). If we had submitted a project proposal, it would have been rejected by everyone. Indeed, had we any notion of the obstacles we would face, we would never have had the courage to begin.
How did you begin?
We began with a day care center, so that babies would be cared for during the day while their mothers had a chance to recover their self esteem and learn some skills that would allow them to work. We wanted to have a decent place; in the event, our work (and we were only three dedicated people at the time) was combined with support of the local Christian community. They gave us a place, and Terre des Hommes financed the project. That allowed us to make a formal beginning to our endeavors.
I still remember seeing one place in a poor area where single mothers left their babies, where babies were stacked in vegetable boxes, without any care. I knew that we could do far better. Today, our centers are full of light, love, and color.
We decided that it was important for the mothers to be independent from the beginning, so we found a center that was in a nice area but close to places where they could afford to pay the rent. We worked out a philosophy that respects the independence and personality of the mother and that does not judge but supports and loves her, yet counts on her to take responsibility for herself and her baby.
What were some of the markers along the way?
I came to understand the depth of stigma and bias that young women experienced when they were pregnant, and if they tried to raise their babies. They were simply considered to be prostitutes, even if they were young and vulnerable, and even if their pregnancy was the result of rape.
Working in orphanages, I realized that every child has the right to a mother and the love that a mother can give. No matter how difficult, keeping the child with the mother was the best solution. No orphanage can care for a child like a mother can.
I did not want to give charity. I knew that however harsh their lives, the young women needed to find their own way. So finding ways to help them find jobs was essential.
I found that the system and the administrators were often not as harsh as they seemed. When I told them what was happening, they often responded positively.
The systems made it difficult to reach those who might help. Once, I tried for months to see the governor, but everything around him blocked me. Finally, by making an extraordinary fuss, I was able to see him. He helped me immediately and asked, “Why did you not come to see me before?”
The king and other members of the Royal Family have been supportive, in ways that are both open and private. They have given money to help build ASF, and have given their important moral support. This made a big difference, since the King has so much support, as both a religious and political leader.
The challenges of papers (birth certificates especially) have become more dramatic over the years. A child without papers is one who is branded as illegitimate, a “bastard,” and faces constant obstacles.
The double standards at work have to be addressed. The fact that the woman is held responsible while the man goes scott-free is not fair or acceptable. Still, today, all sex outside marriage is officially illegal in Morocco, and an unmarried mother can go to prison. She is shunned and faces a host of barriers. There is nothing comparable for men, and yet it takes two to make a baby.
Your book Miseria is a poignant testimony to the suffering and lives of young girls. How did you come to write the book (1996 publication) and, if you were writing today, would the outcomes be as heartrending as most of those you recount?
I wrote the book as a way to bring to life the experiences of the young women I was working with. I talked to a representative of the publisher, a collaborator, for almost 24 hours. What I wanted was to tell the stories in very short sentences, because that is the way the young women talk.
If I were writing today, the stories would have more hope, though there are not many real “happy endings.” Things have indeed changed for the better. Attitudes are more open and there are more opportunities today. But it is still a very hard situation and there is a very long way to go.
What is your own faith background and experience? How does your faith influence the Association? Would you consider it a “faith” organization?
I am a Muslim and a believer. I pray to God and believe that God helps me. I do not believe in an exclusive God —a God for Moroccans, or for Muslims. I leave judgment to God.
And I have had heart-warming experiences working with Christians and Jews. Solidarity was founded by a trio of three people: a Catholic nun, Sister Marie-Jean, a man from Terre des Hommes who was Jewish, and me, a Muslim. We believed that God is for all, that God will take care of himself.
Just recently, I spoke at a large conference for nurses in Marrakech and I had a dream. In my dream, I saw the Virgin Mary (though I did not see her face), surrounded by nuns wearing their traditional habits. People were trying to attach themselves to her. I placed myself between Her and the crowd to protect her without touching her. One of the sisters told me, “You have, with your body, protected Virgin Mary without touching her, and you cannot touch her because she is sacred.” Then she bent down, picked up some dirt, and put it on my chin, saying, “From now on, you are one of us.” After my dream, I asked some Christian and Muslim leaders what it meant. To them it was very clear: we have her protection in our work, but we need to find our strength in both our gifts and our weakness. It is the sacredness of the mother and the humility associated with the earth. We come from the earth, and to the earth we shall return.
The work we do is deeply inspired by the best Muslim values, and faith is important to many of the young mothers, although when they come to us they have lost their faith in their despair. We do nothing specifically to bring faith into our programs, though we do pray and refer to the values of Islam that are at the core of our work and that we believe support the love of children and family.
The problems are vast and the Association can only help a small number of those in need. What do you see for the future?
We do not want a large association and have resisted ideas to start branches in other cities. What we hope is that ASF can serve as a model for others. This is happening to an extent.
But the real solution is for the society to change so that families do not throw their daughters out when they most need their families. So that unmarried mothers have respect and are supported as they raise their children. Children are an investment and the care that a child receives in its first years makes all the difference.
What about your life story? Where were you born?
I was born in Casablanca, but my family is from Marrakech and that is where we lived. I was born in 1942, during World War II, at a time when Morocco was a French Protectorate. My father died when I was only three. My mother was a widow, with two small children. And then I lost my little sister.
But we benefitted from the solidarity within our family. My uncle, and people who knew my father, took us under their wing. I was the “little orphan” and they made sure I went to a good school, the French mission school. Thanks to them, I had nice clothes and all that we needed.
In 1953, King Mohammed V was exiled from Morocco by the French. My mother remarried. And the Pasha of Marrakech, who had supported the exile of the king, was concerned about the stirrings of independence movements and pressures of modernization. With the support of the French authorities, he then ordered the women to wear the veil—not the djellabah which was, at the time, a sign of modernity. The djellabah was a piece of clothing that, as it was worn, was seen to show too much of the contours of the woman’s body. So, women were ordered to wear the veil and the full robe once more. The full robe was a piece of clothing in which women were literally wrapped.
When this happened, my stepfather said that I had enough schooling and should stay at home, wear the djellabah and veil, and learn to sew.
And my brave mother slipped out of the house without his authorization and put her 12-year-old daughter on a bus to Casablanca, because she wanted me to continue my schooling. The times were tense, there was shooting in the streets, but I went to Casablanca and found the aunt my mother had asked to look out for me. Again, solidarity came to my aid and her family welcomed me.
Three years later, in 1955, as Morocco became independent, my mother, who was an astute woman, wanted a divorce, although women could not ask for one. She went to her husband and put the Koran on his knees, asking him to repudiate her, to divorce her. He could not refuse. She joined me in Casablanca. I was 15 and I wanted to earn our living. She sold her jewelry so I could continue my studies until I was 16. But then we had problems, because a cousin wanted to marry me and I could not agree—he was like my brother. So, one rainy day, I took my mother by the hand and we left my aunt’s house, with no idea where we would go.
I met both luck and solidarity again, this time in the shape of a former friend who helped me find a job in the hospital. I was a medical secretary, working in a leprosy program. I found it frightening and depressing and was almost fired but the doctor in charge was compassionate and asked the hospital director to give me another chance. They did. This time, in an anti-tuberculosis lab, I was able to work and did well.
Then, again, I met solidarity. My supervisors saw I had gifts and insisted that I prepare for the exams for nursing school. I resisted, since I needed my salary to live, but, coucou de Dieu again, they badgered me until I took the exam. Though I tried to fail, I passed at the top. But then I began to worry about financing my studies. Again, I had help; my colleagues and supervisors found ways to get me a civil service stipend so I could go to nursing school with enough money to live.
At every point along the way, I met solidarity and people who were ready to help. That’s not to say there were no problems, or people who opposed me. But I came to understand that there were solutions for everything. And I understood what solidarity meant.
My first job after nursing school was in the office that did social work. In 1959, I first volunteered to work at a program to protect children. I have been a volunteer for 51 years. I had a special gift in talking to people. And I got to know Moroccan society, and the parts that were hidden beneath denial and shame. It was a shock, a series of shocks.
In 1965, more or less by chance, I became involved in family planning and proposed a first workshop, with little notion of what I was wading into. I had no notion that family planning was considered a political act. The story was that the Americans wanted Moroccans to have fewer children, so they would be less powerful. It was taboo to talk about the costs involved in having many children. I continued to work on family planning both as a professional and as a volunteer, and saw the benefits for families so clearly. But I found ways around many of the taboos. For example, we had a television program, but we were told not to talk about the benefits of smaller families. We prompted questions that allowed me to tell the truth. But, talking about sex outside the context of marriage was and still is unacceptable. In a school, for example, talking about contraception must be framed as something that might be of interest after marriage.
What are the challenges for family law in Morocco as you look ahead?
The passing in 2004 of the Mudawana (reform of family law) was a very important step and achievement. The intervention of the King was needed to make the reform possible, because there was such strong opposition. The new law represents a compromise. It has made important changes by raising the legal marriageable age to eighteen, and gave women rights they had not had before, such as the right to request divorce. But there are many areas the law did not touch, like illegitimacy, and the application of the law is uneven.
It is a long and slow road.
The real issue is the mentality. The Muslim traditions, culture and religion, shape attitudes towards women, and the relations between men and women. They lie behind the social hierarchy which makes the lives of unmarried mothers so difficult. There is a clear social ladder. At the top of that hierarchy is a mother with sons, then a mother, then a widow, then a divorced woman, then a single woman. At the very bottom is the single mother.
Our approach was to start with the interests of the child, arguing that a child was best cared for by its mother. Then we focused on the couple of mother and child. Only now can we begin to talk about the needs and strengths of the unmarried mother. For a long time that was unthinkable.