Moroccan woman devoted to helping unwed moms wins $1 million Opus Prize
By Doug Belden and Adam Spencer
At key moments in her life, Aïcha Ech Channa has been visited by what she calls "little birdies from God."
A check will arrive out of the blue, or a chance encounter will restore her spirit and help her carry on with her work serving single mothers and their children.
Channa, 68, founder of the Association Solidarité Féminine in Casablanca, Morocco, landed a very large bird Wednesday, when she was announced as the winner of the $1 million Opus Prize, administered this year through the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
St. Thomas scoured the world to find Channa and two $100,000 winners on behalf of the Opus Prize Foundation, which bills the honor as "the world's largest faith-based, humanitarian award for social innovation."
The foundation was established in 1994 by the founding chairman of Minnetonka-based Opus Corp., and the first prize was awarded in 2004.
The foundation partners with Catholic universities, which administer the prize each year.
The two $100,000 prizes this year were awarded to Sister Valeriana García-Martín, founder of an organization in Colombia serving children with physical and mental disabilities, and The Rev. Hans Stapel, of Brazil, who works with people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.
For Channa, the $1 million prize, which is nearly double her annual budget, means being able to move her organization to self-sufficiency and hopefully to leverage further donations to expand her work in
Channa started off small in 1985 and now operates three day care centers and training schools, two restaurants, four kiosks and a fitness center/spa.
Her organization offers single mothers job skills, child care and other kinds of support and attempts to re-establish contact with their families and with the fathers of their children.
Because most children born out of wedlock do not have identification papers from the country, the organization declares the children to the state and gets papers for them.
"Often, these children feel that they have no identity," Channa, who speaks French, said through an interpreter.
Unwed mothers are considered prostitutes under Moroccan law, Channa said, and the expectation has been that children born out of wedlock would be given up for adoption, whether the mother wanted to keep them or not.
As a civil servant in the 1980s, Channa said, she began to realize she wanted to do more to help these women keep their children and become self-sufficient than she could do in her government job.
One day, she was watching a single mom give up her baby for adoption.
The woman was breastfeeding the child, and, as Channa described it in a press release announcing her prize, "at the moment when she forcibly took away her breast from the baby's mouth, the milk sprayed all over the baby's face and the baby cried. This cry was in my head. And that night, I did not sleep. I swore to do something."
When she started the association in 1985, it would have been difficult to publicly announce she was working on behalf of unwed mothers and their children, so she pitched it as general relief for women and children in distress.
"I kind of cheated," she said with a smile.
Attitudes have changed since then, Channa said, and changes to family law in 2004 bolstered some rights for Moroccan women.
Today, she said, children born of single moms go on TV in Morocco to look for their parents, which would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
"It's a true revolution in Morocco," she said. "The train has started, and it's not going back."
Channa says she plans to carry on "as long as I can," and the recognition from Opus has helped generate interest in her work among young people, some of whom she hopes will continue the work after she's gone.
When her organization hits a rough patch, she likes to tell employees, "I'm going to go home and wait to see what he says," she said, gesturing up to the skies. "There's always an answer."