And the Opus Goes to . . .
FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
Aicha Ech Channa, a gutsy Moroccan woman, has worked for five decades with young unmarried mothers, who stand at the very bottom of the social heap in her country. Even if their pregnancy resulted from rape, they are condemned as prostitutes and thrown out by their families, and their babies are stigmatized as bastards.
For her work Mrs. Ech Channa just received the world's largest faith-based prize for social entrepreneurship. That's the Opus Prize and it's for one million dollars.
Ms. Ech Channa began as a social worker in Morocco, mostly in the booming port city of Casablanca, a place of sharp contrasts between rich and poor. For years she struggled in her work, seeing only an occasional victory as her protégées threw off their pasts and built new lives. More often, she saw the vicious cycle that is poverty catch the children of unmarried mothers in its vortex and repeat the story of trouble and misery.
Realizing she could do only so much as a government social worker, Ms. Ech Channa formed a private, non-profit organization (Association Solidarité Féminine) that welcomes young mothers, teaches them skills, helps them care for their babies, and works to find them jobs.
Ms. Ech Channa's work is clearly inspired by her faith. She stresses that she draws on the values of equality, human dignity, and compassion that underpin Islam. She talks constantly about the gifts of God. One of her favorite expressions is that something good is a "coucou du bon Dieu" - a little bird from God. Her partners in the early days were a Catholic nun and a priest.
But she does not label her organization as Muslim. Her work, she says, is poised on a knife edge that is sharpened by religion. She is always in danger of attack, especially from religious groups, and fears a social backlash if she pushes too far ahead of the social consensus.
When she started her work, her belief in women's rights and desire to empower unmarried mothers clashed forcefully with the established Muslim order. But over time, Morocco's royal family has personally lent her support, and a new family code, thrashed out openly with religious and secular bodies across Moroccan society, advances women's rights. It combines the positive values and social benefits of the Muslim faith and tradition with the principle of equal rights, challenging traditional ideas about gender roles and family structures.
The Opus Prize aims to honor unsung heroes but the prize itself is rather unsung. The Prize Foundation is an independent nonprofit that cherishes its Catholic values and tries to keep its light pretty much under a basket. It was established by the founder of the Opus Corporation, a real estate development firm, in 2004. [The family prefers to go unnamed.] The prize selection process is largely secret, each year with a different college as a partner (St. Thomas University this year, Fordham next). The college appoints secret "spotters" to identify candidates and a committee and jury to select finalists. The foundation's board (I am a member) visits the finalists and makes the final decision.
So I was part of a group several months ago with a joyful job: telephoning Ms. Ech Channa to tell her that she was the winner of a prize she had never heard of, worth a million dollars. Last week she was basking in glory in Minneapolis, with the two other remarkable finalists: Sister Valeriana Isabel García-Martín from Colombia, who works with handicapped children, and Father Hans Stapel from Brazil, who runs 60 farms to rehabilitate addicts. They each won $100,000. She then spends several days in Washington, including an event at Georgetown.
But the highlight by far of the experience for me was visiting the young mothers in Casablanca, and being a witness to their shelter in the protective arms of their fierce and loving defender.
After that visit last summer, I read Ms. Ech Channa's book, Miseria. It's a series of vignettes of 24 of her "cases", told in graphic but simple language. I set out to translate a snippet from the French, hoping to tantalize a publisher. I could not stop. The stories are so moving, so full of heartbreak, that I translated the whole book. Housemaids as young as six, burned with needles as punishment for trivial slips in their duties, children abandoned or taken away, desperate girls wanting to care for their babies, story after heart-breaking story of what it is like to be an outcast.
But Ms. Ech Channa's story is above all a story of hope and what a person can do with courage and determination. She took on the system despite fearful reactionary forces. With her strong help, Morocco has confronted many of the devils of harsh traditions, including those that condemned women to second-class citizenship. Morocco's family law is widely celebrated as a rare example of legal reforms that draw both on Muslim teachings and tradition and on universal human rights principles.
For Aicha Ech Chenna, there is much to celebrate, in the lives of the young mothers she helps and in the social environment that needs to support them. But there's a long way to go.
You can read an interview with Aicha here.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
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