By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
CASABLANCA (Reuters) - Moroccan single mother Amina has a nine month old daughter but her father and brothers are unaware of the baby's existence and her mother and sisters insist she should give the child up.
As an unwed mother in the relatively-liberal Muslim country, the 23-year-old is well aware of what to expect should she tell her male relatives about baby Malak.
"It would be a catastrophe," she said. "So when I last went down to visit them, I travelled alone, without my daughter."
Amina lives in Casablanca, more than 200 kms away from her family in Fez. Her boyfriend abandoned her after she fell pregnant and refuses to acknowledge Malak as his own.
At the westernmost boundary of the Muslim world, and only a stone throw's away from Europe, Moroccan women find themselves enjoying more freedoms. A family law reformed in 2004 won the North African country praise from the West for giving Moroccan women more rights than many Arab states.
But unwed mothers remain outcast, even if their pregnancy was the result of a rape. Single mother of two Fadwa Laroui died last month after setting herself on fire to protest being dismissed from a social housing scheme.
An amateur video shows how the 25-year old was pushing away people who ran to her rescue while she performed the desperate act in front of the town hall of Souk Sebt, in central Morocco.
"One day, there will be change," said Aicha Ech-Channa, a former nurse who set up the association Women's Solidarity 25 years ago to help unmarried mothers rebuild their lives and overcome social stigma.
"I recently saw a female student get up at a university debate and start talking about the social acceptances of women," said Ech-Channa, inspired to help after seeing an unwed mother being forcibly separated from her baby as she breastfed.
"Moroccan society needs time. If you pour water, you need to do it drop by drop to avoid a flood ... There is still work that needs to be done."
Though they express understanding of the difficult situation unmarried mothers find themselves in, authorities' position on the issue barely helps since they do not recognize children born out of wedlock. They also exclude unmarried mothers from a fragile safety net for widowed or divorced women.
Morocco's ministry of social development, family and solidarity says it is working to promote women's rights but the subject of unwed mothers remains a sensitive issue.
When she started her association, Ech-Channa blazed the trail in a highly-sensitive terrain for other NGOs offering help to unmarried mothers for whom the only way to avoid shame and public disapproval is often giving up their babies.
Since 1985, Women's Solidarity has offered thousands of women like Amina a stable future to avoid such trauma, she says.
Others resort to abortion: while the practice is mainly banned, 600 to 800 women undergo the operation every day, the Moroccan Association Against Clandestine Abortion (AMLAC) says.
At Women's Solidarity, unmarried mothers are offered psychological support and for three years they are taught skills that can bring them an income such as cooking, sewing and hairdressing. It also has a restaurant, hammam and creches.
Many girls who become single mothers have been separated from their parents to be child maids far from home. When older, some are promised marriage in exchange for sex, then abandoned.
Many say progress has been made due to the reforms of the Family Law introduced by King Mohammed in 2004.
The reforms raised the minimum marriage age from 15 to 18, granted women the right to seek divorce and wider access to child custody, introduced a kind of pre-nuptial for women's inheritance in case of divorce and complicated polygamy.
Women work as doctors, lawyers, ministers, activists and university professors. Yet these types of accomplishments have only really touched the higher strata of society.
Under 50 percent of adult women in urban Morocco are literate, while in rural areas the figure drops to barely 20 percent, according to Moroccan official data.
One of Ech-Channa's most difficult challenges has been society's reluctance to tackle traditionally taboo subjects such as pre-marital sex, rape and disputed paternity.
When she talked about such topics in a television interview in 2000, radical Islamists threatened her, saying she was an infidel who encouraged debauchery.
"I disturbed a lot of people. I talked about incest, rape -- it was like how can someone say that a woman was raped by a man, surely it was the woman who was responsible for the rape. I brought to light what other people wanted to hide," she said.
"The Islamists say a woman is like a crystal, very precious so 'we have to protect her' but I tell them I prefer not to be a jewel, I like to live my life as a poppy flower."
Ech-Channa received a medal and support from the king and in 2009 won the $1 million U.S. Opus prize, awarded for outstanding achievements in resolving serious social problems.
"(People) have to be shaken up," she said.
Amina hopes to continue her sociology studies. Women's Solidarity is helping her learn new skills. "It is very difficult to be a single mother here," she said. "If there was no association like this, I would be out on the street."
(Additional reporting by Zakia Abdennebi; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)