By Zakia Abdennebi
CASABLANCA, Nov 30 (Reuters Life!) - A decade of social reforms has granted more freedoms to Moroccan women, yet most who give birth outside marriage are still treated like criminals, abandoned by family and friends.
The sight of a young, unwed mother being forcibly separated from her newborn baby shocked Aicha Ech Channa, a nurse in a Casablanca hospital who had also recently given birth.
"As the other nurse pulled the baby from her mother's breast, her milk spilled onto the baby's face and it started to cry," she said. "This woman was devoted to her child and yet she was forced to sign it away."
The baby's cries and the mother's anguish haunted Channa, who gave up her job to devote herself to single mothers in distress, who were often persuaded to give up their babies rather than live with the shame and public disapproval.
Over more than two decades, her association "Women's Solidarity" has offered thousands of women a stable future so they don't have to abandon their offspring.
Counsellors offer the mothers psychological support, doctors check their health and for three years they are taught skills that can bring them an income such as cooking, baking, sewing, make-up and hairdressing.
Channa's work made her the first Arab Muslim woman to win the $1 million U.S. Opus Prize, awarded to individuals for outstanding achievements in resolving serious social problems.
Receiving the prize at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis this month, Channa dedicated her win to King Mohammed and the Moroccan people.
Yet she has few illusions about the challenges still ahead.
"A single mother will never have a situation in Moroccan society," Channa told Reuters in an interview. "She will never decide her own future as long as she lives outside the institution of marriage."
Many girls who become single mothers have been separated from their own parents to be child maids far from home. Lacking any schooling, many turn to prostitution when they reach adulthood.
Others are promised marriage in exchange for sex, then quickly abandoned.
The resulting moral stigma makes them outcasts and those who help them risk a backlash from social conservatives.
Islamists threatened to assassinate Channa in 2000, saying she was an infidel who encouraged sinful behaviour. The same year, King Mohammed gave her a medal and financial support.
She says Women's Solidarity does not help women as long as they are prostitutes.
"Tell me how I am encouraging prostitution. If a girl comes to me with her child in her arms, should I take the child and kill it? Or should I try to find the best solution to a problem that is already there?" she said.
As many as 600 Moroccan women undergo secret abortions every day, according to a survey carried out by the Moroccan Family Association cited by newspaper Al Ahdat al-Maghribiya.
It said the survey of 437 women found that 165 of them had at least one abortion in their life. More than half of those had an abortion before they were married.
Channa said some of the religious radicals who attack her are allowed to desert their own wives because they formalise their marriage only verbally and refuse to sign official papers.
"When the woman becomes pregnant the husband says it is not his responsibility and abandons her," she said. "How can you tell me that man is a Muslim? He is not Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Buddhist. He is not even human."
"But it isn't only Islamists who attack me. You also get cultivated Moroccans -- lawyers, doctors, or policemen." (Writing by Tom Pfeiffer, editing by Paul Casciato) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; tel: +212 5 3772 6518; fax: +212 5 3772 2499)) (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/)