The visit to Association Solidarité Feminine (ASF) and our subsequent lecture with its founder, Aïcha Ech-Chenna, was one of the most inspirational educational experiences of my life. ASF is a nonprofit organization that works to support unwed mothers and their babies in Morocco. The association helps unwed mothers in need by harnessing or teaching them a skill that will enable them to work in one of AFS’s associated businesses, whether it be working as a cook in AFS’s restaurant, or as an esthetician in the hammam. The association also provides judicial and legal advice for the women who face an uphill battle in terms of custody and bureaucratic identification for their “illegitimate” children. To start, sex out of wedlock is criminalized in Morocco. As such, child abandonment has become a major public health issue in the country, one that has only increased in severity since a 2013 law which criminalized the act of child abandonment itself. Besides the cultural and religious shame that is bestowed on these unwed mothers in an Islamic society, state specificities only add to their burdens. For example, take the issue of the Family Booklet. The Family Booklet begins when a couple gets married, as the names of the bride and groom are inscribed, signed and recorded. When the couple bears any children, their names are added to the Family Booklet. Essentially, it serves as marriage and birth certificates. However, what becomes of children who are born to unwed mothers without their own Family Book? If a child is not written down in any Family Book, they do not legally exist.
It is unclear whether or not unwed mothers have the legal right to obtain a Family Booklet in Morocco. As lawyer Stephanie Bordat informed the program, sometimes civil status agents will compassionately comply with the unwed mother’s application for a family booklet. Moreover, sometimes the father of the unwed mother will allow their grandchild to be written in their family booklet. ASF works with these loopholes to advocate for the legal rights of the unwed mothers and their children, because without a family booklet, the child will face innumerable challenges in the future. If a child does not legally exist, they will not be able to get a national identity card, passport, job or even be allowed to enter into the school system.
ASF celebrated its 30th anniversary this past November, but 2016 marks Aïcha Ech-Chenna’s 57th year involved with the issue of unwed motherhood and child abandonment in Morocco. We had the privilege of dining with Mme Ech-Chenna for a delicious lunch at one of ASF’s restaurants, which was followed by a lecture given by the Mother Teresa of Morocco herself. Mme Ech-Chenna told us about her involvement with women’s rights, the history of ASF and their current projects. Her compassion, intellect and modesty shone through so effortlessly that it was hard not to tear up at some of her personal stories about her encounters with these poor women who feel pressured to abandon their children, or the societal misery that face the unwed mothers who refuse to be separated from their babies. After having seen a baby ripped from his unwed mother’s nursing breast, milk splattered all over his little mouth, Mme Ech-Chenna vowed not to let this issue go on without resistance. However, Mme Ech-Chenna faced severe criticism and public denunciation in the beginning of her efforts to support unwed mothers and advocate for their right to keep their children. Working in a largely conservative Islamic society, Mme Ech-Chenna has even had a death warrant target put on her back by Islamic fundamentalists in Casablanca who denounced her work. Despite initial public backlash, Mme Ech-Chenna persevered and was eventually recognized by the King for her commendable efforts. Today, she is often interviewed on the radio and television advocating for the rights of unwed mothers and their children.
There were many inspirational things I could quote from our lecture with Mme Ech-Chenna, but something I found particularly poignant was when she said that when dealing with humanitarian issues, “don’t focus on politics. Speak directly to the people.” Shortly after she said this, a middle-aged couple approached our table to praise Mme Ech-Chenna for her work and present her with a donation for the association. “This is exactly what I meant when I tried to emphasized the importance of speaking directly to society,” Mme Ech-Chena passionately explained, “If you tell the people about the problem, those who want to help will come, regardless of the political situation. Here we have a couple who just provided a donation to ASF, a donation that will directly help our efforts to keep babies with their mothers.” The couple’s obvious admiration for Mme Ech-Chenna and her own appreciation of the donation was so touching that my eyes are once again filling with tears just remembering the interaction. Our visit to ASF was not only a lecture on the mechanical processes and statistical information of the association, but a lecture on the importance of perseverance, human rights advocacy, interfaith cooperation and love.