By Fatima El Ouafi, L’Économiste du Maroc
Aïcha Ech-Chenna, who passed away on September 25, 2022 at age 81, can rest in peace: The ostracized single mothers for whom she fought until her last breath can still find a sympathetic ear and vital support at the Association Solidarité Féminine (ASF), which she founded in 1985. A nurse by training, Ech-Chenna became a leading figure in the struggle for women’s rights in Morocco, earning prestigious awards for her humanitarian work. She is best known for ASF, which offers unwed mothers the possibility to rebuild their lives and to understand that they have the right to live with their child in dignity and respect.
“How can a girl who falls pregnant from rape or incest possibly be guilty?” asks Naïma Ame, president of ASF. Along with other Moroccan associations founded more recently, such as the National Institute for Solidarity with Women in Distress (INSAF), ASF tirelessly denounces this injustice. Their battle focuses on Article 490 of the Moroccan penal code, which orders the “imprisonment of between one month and one year of all unmarried persons of the opposite sex who engage in sexual relations with each other.” Since abortion is also illegal, girls in this situation are often forced to carry their pregnancy to term, give birth in secret and then abandon their child.
To avoid this kind of trauma, Solidarité Féminine ramped up its awareness campaigns targeting the media and public authorities, even though it risked being accused of encouraging prostitution and extra-marital sex. As it turns out, the merits of the association’s advocacy work were in fact acknowledged, and in 2002, ASF was officially recognized by decree as an organization serving the public interest. The NGO, which started its activities in the basement of a women’s rights association, is now housed in a three-story building in Palmiers, a residential neighborhood in downtown Casablanca.
Every day of the year, the association opens its doors to desperate mothers. The ASF team strives to make them feel at ease and presents them with a plan for a dignified life. In addition to psychological and social support as well as legal assistance, the association offers vocational training and jobs. Literacy and accounting programs are also available to help these women gain financial independence. While they are in class, the women’s children are taken care of at a local day care center that has an agreement with ASF.
“I was lucky to find Solidarité Feminine,” says Siham (not her real name). “I was deceived by a man who had promised to marry me. When he found out I was pregnant, he vanished into thin air. My family said I had dishonored them, so they threw me out on the street. A friend gave me the address of the association, and I was able to get check-ups during my pregnancy and to give birth in good conditions. I was also able to complete a training program.” Five years after contacting ASF, Siham supports herself and her son through her job at a catering company.
This sort of progress is encouraging, but there is still much to be done, notably to ensure that children raised by single mothers are no longer victims of legal and social discrimination. “Changes made to the Family Code in 2004 took away single mothers’ right to have a family civil status record, which is now issued exclusively in the context of marriage,” Ame explains. The current procedure allows a child born out of wedlock and without paternal filiation to be recorded only on the civil register, under his mother’s name or another surname. But paternal filiation is necessary to obtain civil status—and it’s almost impossible to establish the paternal lineage of children born outside of marriage. To add to the injustice, children without civil status will be excluded from various opportunities later in life, such as taking public service entrance exams or joining the police force. “They are destined to be second-class citizens,” Ame says.
The association has 32 employees and a dozen volunteers who supervise activities. The fact that it is managed like a business with an executive committee has enabled Solidarité Féminine to grow and has ensured its longevity. Moreover, financial independence has always been foremost in the minds of the association’s members. “The donors are here today, but what about tomorrow?” Ech-Chenna always said.
Part of the association’s funding comes from award money and donations from private and public sponsors, but the main source of income is its business activities. Two restaurants, a hammam, a gym, a hair salon and some kiosks are all successfully run by the single moms. “These activities enable us to provide the single mothers with vocational training—cooking, pastry making, hairdressing, beauty treatments, sewing and so on, all of which facilitate their social reintegration,” says Ame. “And they make it possible for our association to remain financially independent.”