12/18/2010 07:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fighting for Girls' Rights With God's Help: A Conversation with Aicha Ech-Channa

This interview is part of a series of conversations with activists working for development and peace and drawing their inspiration from their faith, based on interviews led by Katherine Marshall for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. The full interview can be found here.

Winner of the $1 million Opus Prize in 2009, Aicha Ech-Channa has worked for five decades to help unmarried women with children in Casablanca, Morocco. Katherine Marshall sat down with Aicha last year to discuss the stigma unmarried girls in Morocco face and what she does to change the situation.

Your life story is a remarkable journey, illustrating vividly what civil society leaders are achieving in Morocco. What are some of the highlights?

One image, a turning point for me, comes to me when I cannot sleep, which is often. I was working as a social worker and had just had a baby. A young girl came to the office beside mine. She had the rounded, stooped shoulders that I have come to recognize as the sign of the shame she carried. She was breastfeeding the baby she carried in her arms. My colleague, the social worker, gave her a paper to sign with her thumbprint (she was illiterate), then reached out to take the baby. The girl was giving up her baby, as was the expectation, even requirement, at the time. As the social worker pulled the baby away, a jet of milk squirted from the mother's breast onto its face. The baby cried. The mother had a desperate look and I could feel the pain she would feel in her breasts, as I was breastfeeding myself. I was determined to do something, though at the time I had no idea what I could or would do.

Many other events, and many women and babies made me more and more determined to act.

What inspired you to take the next step, to found your own organization, Association Solidarité Féminine?

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 being 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. Another time, I visited the orphanage and saw babies whose skin tore away when I changed a diaper because they were neglected.

What is the philosophy of the organization you founded?

At first, I worked case by case as a social worker, following each case. Sometimes we achieved remarkable results, persuading families to accept their daughters, fathers of babies to marry the young woman, or getting the vital papers that mothers and children need to have some status. But the solutions were far too few, and too fragile. There were so many cases and they were so heartbreaking -- the nine-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 began in a basement. We conducted no studies and we had no resources. Everyone was a volunteer, including me. 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. 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.

What were some of the lessons along the way?

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.

And I realized that the double standards in society have to be addressed. 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.

What is your own faith background and experience?

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 heartwarming experiences working with Christians and Jews. Solidarité Féminine was founded by a trio of three people: a Catholic nun, a man who was Jewish, and me, a Muslim. We believed that God is for all, that God will take care of himself.

Recently while I was at a large conference for nurses in Marrakech, 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 pushing to reach her. I placed myself between her and the crowd to protect her, without touching her. One of the sisters said, "With your body, you protected Virgin Mary, without touching her, which we cannot 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." I asked some Christian and Muslim leaders what my dream meant. To them it was very clear: Our work is to protect girls like Mary, but we need to find our strength in both our gifts and our weakness. The dream spoke to the sacredness of the mother and the humility associated with the earth. We come from the earth, and to the earth we shall return.

Your book Miseria, published in 1996 in French, is a poignant testimony to the suffering and lives of young girls. If you were writing today, would the outcomes be as heartrending?

I wrote the book as a way to bring to life the experiences of the young women I was working with. 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. But the situation is still tough and there is far to go.

The real solution is for the society to change so that families do not throw their daughters out when they most need their families and so unmarried mothers have respect and support as they raise their children. Children are an investment. The care that a child receives in its first years makes all the difference.

You sometimes say that you sit 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. What are your hopes and the dangers you see?

Through my social work, I saw 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 deep, ancient taboos that treat unmarried mothers as prostitutes, even if their pregnancy is the result (as quite often it is) of abuse or rape. Religion plays its role. Many link their condemnation to their Muslim faith, but only the woman, the mother, is treated so harshly. And the children born to unmarried mothers suffer terribly -- without a name, without papers, they are condemned for life as bastards. Many abandoned babies died in orphanages or grew up scarred by their status.

Morocco passed a Family Law reform in 2004 that has helped to change laws and attitudes. It is, however, still far from being fully applied and has gaps. Attitudes are changing, but slowly.

The knife edge is how to challenge attitudes that produce misery without provoking a backlash, from the society and especially from its conservative Islamist elements. Many condemn any effort to help single mothers as encouraging prostitution, even as they claim to love and support children and families. So we move along this fine line, helping each individual to recapture her dignity, to keep her child when she can, and to make a new life for herself and her child. We are fortunate to have much support including from Morocco's Royal Family.

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 remarkable successes but also too many failures. So we need to move with caution but also with courage.