Page last updated at 06:35 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

Helping Morocco's outcast single mothers

By James Copnall
BBC News, Casablanca

Khadija was treated as a pariah after getting pregnant outside wedlock

Khadija's baby Noha is almost one year old and is her mother's greatest joy.

But in deeply religious and conservative Morocco, Noha is also Khadija's greatest problem.

Khadija was not married to her child's father - and Moroccan society finds it very difficult to accept children born out of wedlock.

"I used to go out with a man and he promised we would get married," she says.

"But when I got pregnant he didn't want to know me any more."

Cast out

Khadija, whose pretty face regularly breaks into a slow but frank smile, was also cast out by her family.

She came to Casablanca to give birth, and then stumbled across the Feminine Solidarity Association.

The centre has a creche so babies are looked after as the mothers work

The non-governmental organisation found her a place to live, a small and simply-furnished room with few adornments round the corner from the centre it runs.

At the centre she is learning a trade - making the sweet pastries that Moroccans prize so highly.

The women in the centre learn to cook, make pastries or sew.

The results of their work are sold to the public - the association even has a restaurant.

And crucially the centre has a creche, where the babies are looked after while the mothers work.

Single mothers are now more aware of their rights, they know the father should accept his child, but to make him get married is another issue
Aicha Ech Chana
Feminine Solidarity Association

After a stay of up to three years, they leave, but armed with a new skill which will hopefully allow them to earn money to support their children.

The centre is the life's work of Aicha Ech Chana, a woman of formidable purpose and drive, who is outraged by the way Morocco treats single mothers.

She quotes from the Koran to show why mothers should not be rejected even if they are unmarried, and bubbles with energy when dissecting the social conventions that shun the girls she looks out for.

"Even intellectuals don't accept the idea of single mothers," she says.

"They think of adoption. But the biological mother is always the best parent.

"Single mothers are now more aware of their rights, they know the father should accept his child. But to make him get married is another issue."

Growing problem

Anthropologist Jamila Bargach is an expert on the issue.

"Single mothers are, generally speaking, considered as pariahs," she explains.

Sewing instructor
Instructors at the centre teach cooking and sewing
"It's considered an affront to the family, to the neighbourhood, to the city and to the person."

Although no statistics exist, it seems likely the vast majority of single mothers are rejected by their families, whatever part of society they come from.

It is a growing problem too, as - in the eyes of Morocco's conservatives - young Moroccans copy the sexual habits of the decadent West.

Ms Bargach says what single mothers experience is hugely difficult for both the mother and her child.

"The women itself, it takes them a long time to forgive themselves for what they have done, and also to establish a sane relationship with their child.

"The child is there to remind her she has done something that was the cause of the rejection of the family, so it is an extremely difficult situation," she explains.

Both Ms Bargach and Ms Ech Chana say the father needs to take greater responsibility when children are born outside of marriage, and there have been some tentative legal steps to push fathers in this direction.

Nevertheless, life as a single mother is extremely difficult.

Khadija is one of the lucky ones - thanks in part to the efforts of the centre, her family has decided to welcome her back into the fold.

But many other women have to bring up their children alone, in the most difficult of circumstances.

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