CASABLANCA, Morocco (WOMENSENEWS)--When she was working as a health educator 25 years ago, Aicha Ech-Chenna happened to witness a young woman abandon her child to a nurse at a hospital when she hadn't even finished breastfeeding.
"The milk squirted on the baby's face when she gave it to the nurse. That night I didn't sleep. I had to do something," she remembers.
The woman, Ech-Chenna says, was unmarried and couldn't face the future she saw ahead of her in Morocco, a country where single mothers are considered the legal equivalents of prostitutes and subject to harsh forms of social exclusion.
Under existing Morrocan law, sexual relations outside marriage are a crime subject to imprisonment. Ech-Chenna says that society is improving, however, and no single mother has been prosecuted under the law for over 10 years. "The jails would explode if the law were applied," she said.
In 1985 Ech-Chenna launched Feminine Solidarity in Casablanca. The group offers single mothers a three-year program, which provides them an income and training along with three day care centers so they can keep their children while preparing for a job. The group also runs a support center, which gets about 600 visits per year and provides medical care.
"If a woman can earn her life in dignity, then she is saved," says Ech-Chenna.
Limits of Legal Rights
One 20-year-old single mother in the program, whose name has been changed to Fatima, has experienced the limits of her legal rights. When she was 17, she met a man who proposed to her and took her to visit an apartment where they would settle after their marriage. But he offered her a drink and she woke up hours later and realized she had been drugged and raped, she says.
Fatima says he then lured her into a relationship by promising to marry her; eventually she wound up pregnant. "I filed a complaint against him but while at the police station, I saw the police captain releasing him and telling him, 'Go, don't worry,'" Fatima says. "Then my dossier disappeared. Later I found out he had drugged another girl."
Feminine Solidarity offers a place for women like Fatima to adjust to life as a single mother. Program participants, who currently number 58, split their days between training programs and paid employment. They work in two restaurants, a new beauty center and four kiosks selling takeout food. They also attend training classes in couture or cooking.
Since a progressive package of legal reforms was passed two years ago, Ech-Chenna and her staff have also begun helping women identify the fathers of their children.
Morocco's new family status law that was enacted in 2004 provides women with a package of important rights and benefits, including the right to marry without the assent of a male "tutor" (customarily a father or brother) and to initiate divorce. The new "mudawana" law also abolishes "repudiation," the practice by which a man could annul his marriage by a simple declaration of his will to do so.
Judges Can Order DNA Tests
One provision of the law says a judge can order a man to undergo DNA testing if a woman can prove she was engaged to him.
DNA paternity tests are a potentially potent aid for single mothers, says Ech-Chenna, because once a father is identified he faces legal obligations to recognize the child and provide financial support. And when a man recognizes a child, a woman also stands a better chance of being accepted back into her family, even if she doesn't get married.
But various problems establishing a formal engagement mean that judges have applied the law only rarely.
Amid widespread economic hardship in Morocco, few families are putting on large engagement ceremonies, making videotapes, photographs, witnesses and other proof of an engagement scarce. Meanwhile, religious ceremonies that mark an engagement and provide social sanction for sex are not considered legal proof of an engagement if they are not followed by a formal wedding.
"What is an official engagement?" Ech-Chenna demands. "How can we justify this? It is the judge who decides."
The DNA paternity provision also requires the woman to pay for the test, which costs about $350 and is too costly for many of the single women Ech-Chenna encounters.
Mediating Between Fathers and Mothers
Given the difficulties of applying the DNA testing, Ech-Chenna and her staff began to simply reach out to the men, offer mediation sessions between him and the mother and simply do whatever they can to persuade the father to either admit paternity or agree to take a DNA test.
"We go to see the father and we convince him," Ech-Chenna says. "It is better than a judge who forces the father to recognize his child."
Feminine Solidarity says it persuaded 60 men to take the test between August 2005 and August 2006 while only two DNA paternity tests were imposed by judges in an application of the new law.
"We are currently dealing with a man who has doubts," says Ech-Chenna. "Sometimes he thinks the child is his, sometimes he doesn't. Our social assistant recently took him to the family tribunal. But the mother still has to pay for the DNA test if he ends up agreeing."
The 2004 reforms offered single mothers no other legal help and Mohamed Benyahia, a Socialist deputy, says it's unlikely the parliament will address their needs anytime soon. "It is a real taboo. No one will speak about that."
But Ech-Chenna says that doesn't dim the significance of the 2004 reform package.
"Morocco is the first Arab country who dared impose DNA tests," she says. "We're revolutionizing the Arab-Muslim society and it's not nothing."
Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance writer in Morocco who has written for Asia Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Middle East Times and Reuters.