Casablanca, Morocco – About two years ago, Zohra’s boyfriend abandoned her when he discovered she was pregnant.
Suddenly, she was faced with an unwanted pregnancy.
In Morocco, abortion is criminalised and punishable by prison and fines, except in the cases of married women whose medical reports prove that the pregnancy carries a physical threat. Even in such cases, a husband’s approval is mandatory.
“I wish for no woman to go through my misery. I did not have a choice and I endeavoured a lot,” says the 34-year-old from Casablanca, who decided not to terminate the pregnancy.
Her daughter is now 18 months old.
There are 27,000 single mothers in the kingdom who have found themselves with an unwanted baby, according to a study carried out by INSAF (Institution National de Solidarite avec les Femmes en detresse), a women’s rights NGO.
“I was living with my boyfriend for two and half years. Everything was fine until I got pregnant,” remembers Zohra, tears filling her eyes.
“When I got to my eighth month of pregnancy, my boyfriend abandoned me.”
According to INSAF, more than 500,000 births in Morocco were out of wedlock in 2009.
Professor Chafik Chraibi is a gynaecologist at Les Orangers hospital in the capital, Rabat, and runs an association fighting against backstreet abortions – AMLAC.
He told Al Jazeera that several women approach him seeking terminations every day.
I receive different women with unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. I also receive parents who bring their underage or mentally ill daughters. This is why I fight.
“Many women seek help from us, but our hands are bound by the law restricting abortions,” he says. “The same women keep coming back, some with serious bleeding or infected wounds following unsafe attempts to get rid of the baby.
“Some women do secret abortions by some doctors, who are not necessarily gynaecologists, in their private offices for a very high price.”
Others, he explains, attempt to end their pregnancies themselves.
“I receive different women with unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. I also receive parents who bring their underage or mentally ill daughters. This is why I fight.”
For Chraibi, Morocco’s abortion law does not take into consideration all of the risks that lead to negative social, mental and physical consequences for both mothers and babies.
“The law doesn’t consider pregnancies that might lead to depression or maybe to suicide,” he says. “A pregnancy outside marriage is considered a scandal in Morocco. Such cases are looked at by society as a disgrace. Those pregnant women end up becoming single mothers. They become rejected by the society and subjects to harassment.”
He claims that between 600 and 800 abortions are carried out each day in in the north African nation.
“As long as the secret abortion surgeries go well with no problem, the authorities do not intervene, but when something goes wrong, both mums and doctors are sent to prison. This is the problem in our country, too many restrictive laws and people will always find their ways around it.”
Association Solidarite Feminine (ASF, or Women’s Solidarity Association) is a leading organisation supporting single mothers and their babies.
Based in Casablanca, ASF provides accommodation, food, kindergarten expenses, medical treatment, legal and juridical assistance and professional skills training.
ASF does not have a shelter, but helps mothers to find rent near its headquarters.
The organisation is run by Aicha Chenna, a veteran women’s rights and single mothers’ advocate with 58 years’ experience.
She says most unwanted pregnancies are the result of an “unaccomplished engagement or marriage, rape or a love story built on a lie”.
“Many women consider aborting or abandoning their child after birth, a second mistake after having had sex without marriage,” she tells Al Jazeera.
“The woman who leaves her newborn in the street is one who got to a point where her mind is so messed up and she needs help.”
Chenna says that single mothers should be taken care of.
“We do not encourage women to have sex and get pregnant out of wedlock. But any woman has the right to protection.”
One solution, she says, is more open sex education in Moroccan schools.
“Educating our youth, including sexual education in schools, would prevent them from falling in these mistakes. We should be building schools, not prisons where we send young women and men and doctors.”
When Zohra’s relationship broke down, she was also rejected by her parents.
“It was cold and I didn’t have a place to give birth,” she says, adding that she searched for NGOs that could accommodate her.
Wiping tears from her cheeks, she adds: “It was very hard and I don’t want to talk about it again.
“I asked around and people directed me to INSAF in Casablanca. When I went, they told me they had no place left, it was full. So, they directed me to another one named SAMU Social, in Bourgone district. SAMU helped. They took charge of me in a hospital and took me in for two months, and then it was time for me to leave.”
Two months after giving birth, Zohra was redirected to ASF. Today she is one of 50 women the NGO supports, and has learned skills that will help her find employment, including spa techniques and cooking.
Abortion remains an open debate in Morocco, a majority Muslim country.
While Chraibi, the doctor, and Chenna, the activist, advocate for legalising some forms of abortion, others consider the move firmly against the principles of Islam.
Abortion is forbidden in Islam unless the life of the mother is in danger and that there is a choice to be made between her life and that of the baby.
Doctor Miloud Kaouass, professor of Islamic Studies at the Unversity of Kenitra, tells Al Jazeera that “abortion is an assault on another human being that we try to murder.
“Abortion is forbidden in Islam unless the life of the mother is in danger and that there is a choice to be made between her life and that of the baby.”
Zohra’s time at ASF is drawing to an end. Single mothers can stay with the organisation for up to three years, a period that allows them to gain the skills to find work and become independent.
With ASF’s guidance, Zohra also managed to get her baby girl’s father to legally recognise the child as his daughter.
“I strived so that my daughter doesn’t lose her rights. So, when I gave birth I went back looking for the father of my daughter. He agreed to register her as his child,” says Zohra, with a glint of hope in her eyes.
“Now she has her papers and can go to the primary school. And even if she asks me about her father, I can show him to her.
“The only thing I wish now is for God to forgive me for the mistakes I committed.”