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Aicha Ech-Channa, ‘Moroccan Mother Teresa,’ dies at 81

A self-described ‘secular in my head and Muslim in my heart,’ she founded an organization that helped thousands of unwed mothers and their babies overcome stigma and build new lives

Aicha Ech-Channa, an internationally known Moroccan women's rights activist, in Casablanca in 2015. (Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP)

When sleep eluded Aicha Ech-Channa, her mind often summoned the memory of one of the first women she encountered in her decades-long service to unwed mothers and their babies, a population traditionally relegated to the margins of life in her native Morocco.

The mother was a “young girl” with a baby at her breast, Ms. Ech-Channa recalled. “She had the rounded, stooped shoulders that I have come to recognize as the sign of the shame she carried.”

Ms. Ech-Channa watched as a fellow social worker produced a document on which the mother, who was illiterate, impressed her thumbprint, signing away her child. As the social worker reached out to take the babe, “a jet of milk squirted from the mother’s breast onto its face,” Ms. Ech-Channa said.

“The baby cried, and the mother had a desperate look. I could feel the pain she would feel in her breasts, as I was breastfeeding myself,” she continued. “I was determined to do something, though at the time I had no idea what I could or would do.”

Ms. Ech-Channa went on to establish the Association Solidarité Féminine (ASF), a Casablanca-based operation that since its founding in 1985 has served thousands of unwed mothers, helping them keep their babies rather than risk their lives in illegal abortions or relinquish their infants to orphanages, and eventually build independent lives for themselves and their children.

A self-described “secular in my head and Muslim in my heart,” Ms. Ech-Channa was denounced by Islamic fundamentalists, who saw her efforts as encouraging prostitution and called for her to be stoned. She said she worked on a “knife edge,” continually gauging “how much it is possible to challenge the attitudes that produce this misery without provoking a backlash from the society and especially from its conservative Islamist elements.”

Over time, she gradually won support in Morocco, including from King Mohammed VI, who announced her death, according to MAP, Morocco’s state news agency.

Ms. Ech-Channa, 81, died Sept. 24 or 25 at a hospital in Casablanca, according to Morocco news outlets. The cause was not immediately available.

Ms. Ech-Channa became known through her work as the “Moroccan Mother Teresa,” a reference to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Catholic nun who devoted her life to the poorest of the poor in India. In her work with the unwed mothers of Morocco, Ms. Ech-Channa served a group that was similarly scorned and cast aside.

After beginning her career in the 1960s as a social worker with the Moroccan civil service, Ms. Ech-Channa observed the agony endured by women who became pregnant outside of marriage.

Many were turned away by their families. At hospitals, medical staff members were expected to report single mothers to the police. Ostracized and sometimes prosecuted as prostitutes even when they had not engaged in sex work, many turned to the trade as their only means of supporting themselves. Keeping their babies often seemed impossible.

“I still remember seeing one place in a poor area where single mothers left their babies, where babies were stacked in vegetable boxes, without any care,” Ms. Ech-Channa told an interviewer at Georgetown University in 2009. “I knew that we could do far better.”

Working with a Catholic nun and a Jewish humanitarian volunteer, she established ASF to help unmarried mothers build sustainable lives. From modest beginnings in a basement, the organization grew to provide women with child care, counseling and medical services, and vocational training in fields such as cooking, sewing and accounting.

“I did not want to give charity,” Ms. Ech-Channa said. “I knew that however harsh their lives, the young women needed to find their own way.”

For children labeled “illegitimate,” ASF sought to obtain the documentation necessary for them to go to school. The organization also helped push for legal changes, winning some concessions with revisions to the “moudawana,” or family code, that gave women greater rights in divorce, marriage and child custody.

Ms. Ech-Channa attracted notice abroad, winning the backing of groups including the social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka and, in 2009, the $1 million Opus Prize, an annual faith-based humanitarian award given by the Minnesota-based Opus Prize Foundation in partnership with Catholic universities.

“Aicha has drastically changed society’s perception of unwed mothers and their children,” reads a description of her work on the Ashoka website, “drawing strength from the humanity of the women and children with whom she works.”

Ms. Ech-Channa was born in Casablanca on Aug. 14, 1941, when Morocco was a French protectorate. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was 3, and her younger sister died of the same disease shortly thereafter.

She grew up in Marrakesh in the care of her widowed mother, who later married a man who decreed that Ms. Ech-Channa cease her schooling and wear a conservative veil and robe. Without his knowledge, her mother put the 12-year-old Ms. Ech-Channa on a bus back to Casablanca, later divorcing her husband and joining her daughter there. The mother sold her jewelry, Ms. Ech-Channa said, to finance her continued schooling.

Ms. Ech-Channa worked as a medical secretary in a leprosy clinic and later a tuberculosis laboratory and studied nursing before beginning her career as a state social worker. Through that work, she began to understand the fate to which unwed mothers were consigned.

They “are often the youngest daughters of poor families from the country. They are sold by their families at the age of seven or eight to work as maidservants in city households,” she told the online publication Qantara in 2009.

“They can neither read nor write, and have no idea about sexuality. These girls are often harassed as they go about their work, and even raped. Or they fall for men who promise them the world. If they get pregnant, they are then rejected by society. I found this hypocrisy unbearable.”

Ms. Ech-Channa was married and had several children, but a complete list of survivors was not available.

The depth of trauma experienced by the mothers she met was so great, Ms. Ech-Channa said in the interview at Georgetown, that she saw “some remarkable successes but also too many failures.”

Any victory, however, was reason enough to keep going.

She recalled meeting one young mother who had “lost her spirit” but wished to keep the baby. Ms. Ech-Channa helped her do so.

Years later, at a UNICEF meeting, a woman introduced herself and asked Ms. Ech-Channa if she recognized her. “I am Rachida,” she said. “My daughter knows about you, as the one who saved her.”