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Unclear laws and traditional attitudes make it hard for mothers to register illegitimate children, blighting their lives
SALE, Morocco (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From 1-1/2-year-old Marwa to 10-year-old Abdelaziz, Aziza Mohammed Kanzi's youngest children are just like any other group of energetic siblings. But according to the Moroccan government they do not exist, as they are illegitimate and lack basic documents.
Sitting in a darkened, one-room shack with a tin roof, Kanzi keeps an eye on Khadija, 9, who prefers to enter through a hole in the corner of the roof rather than the front door, where 6-year-old Sifeddine is quietly slipping out. Meanwhile, Abdelaziz attempts to keep baby Marwa from chewing on an old battery.
"Sometimes, I just think about leaving everything and never coming back," Kanzi said, quickly adding that her maternal instincts would never allow her to do that. As an unemployed single mother, her situation is particularly precarious because her children are illegitimate.
In Morocco, children born out of wedlock are technically illegal, and the process to "legitimize" a child is especially difficult if the father is not present. Not only do such young people face discrimination, but their inability to get legal documents makes many facets of life difficult, from going to school to receiving health care to eventually getting a job.
In 2004, a reform was passed to make it easier for some single mothers to register their children, but social groups say it has had little practical effect.
"Most of the single mothers are afraid of these procedures; therefore, they don't go register their kids," said Aicha Ech Channa, president of L'association Solidarite Feminine, a non-profit dedicated to helping single mothers in Morocco.
A 2014 documentary, "Bastards," created by former BBC producer Deborah Perkin, highlights the struggle of unwed mothers and illegitimate children in Morocco. The story follows Rabha El Hamier's fight with the court system in her attempts to legitimize her daughter, Salma, with assistance from Ech Channa's association.
According to Insaf, a Casablanca-based NGO that assists women and children, an estimated 153 illegitimate children are born in Morocco every day. The vast majority come from poor families, and often remain poor in the country of 32 million with high unemployment.
Aziza Kanzi, a young widow, is raising her children in this situation.
"They're like a gang, or a futbol team," Kanzi said with a laugh. Her youthful expression is often hidden beneath worry lines that reveal a deep exhaustion.
The 39-year-old has eight children. Her first three are registered and living with other family members or married. Her younger five, born out of wedlock, are illegitimate.
She has lived her entire life in Sahb Al Caid, one of the poorest areas of Salé, which neighbors the capital of Rabat in the central part of the country.
"How can I get a job while I don't even know the alphabet?" Kanzi asked, noting the jobs crisis in Morocco and the weekly protests by unemployed university degree holders.
Indeed, her chances of getting a job are slim. She once worked as a housekeeper, but when her employer found that she had a young daughter, she fired her due to the "extra responsibility."
Kanzi hopes her children will have educational and work opportunities that she never had, but that is unlikely, as the kids can't even go to school without identification papers. While it's possible to obtain them in a family court, in general poor families struggle with accessibility to the legal system.
According to Ech Channa, even when an illegitimate child does get registered and receive legal documents, he or she may face discrimination in the future.
That's because the papers often underscore the past - even if a fictional name for the father is listed, for example, there won't likely be a grandfather named, revealing that the child was probably born outside of wedlock.
According to Moroccan law, all sexual relationships outside of marriage can be punished and women can be charged with prostitution. Children born from these relationships also suffer because a marriage license of the parents must be presented when a child is registered for identification.
Under the 2004 reform, a couple's engagement period was recognized as a legal time of conception for a child. There was also a change made so that unwed mothers could register their children without having the father present.
However, legal experts argue that the amendment was vaguely written and leaves room for personal interpretation, ultimately allowing for discrimination against unwed mothers when they attempt to legitimize their children.
At the same time, parents can be punished with up to a two-month prison sentence and 200 dirhams ($25) fine if they do not register a child within 30 days of birth.
"The laws are contradictory and have led to different understandings and interpretations among the local authorities who then may or may not allow unwed mothers to get a Family Book," said Stephanie Willman Bordat, a lawyer and founder of the Rabat-based group Mobilising Rights Associates (MRA), a non-governmental organization that advocates for women's rights.
The Family Book is one of several documents required for legal identification, and is also necessary to obtain a marriage license. Since unwed couples lack a marriage license, they are unable to acquire registration forms for their children. When an illegitimate person wants to get married, he or she must present identification for a marriage license.
"There is the risk of a cycle," Bordat said.
Kanzi held a tattered, worn-out document in her hands. She turned it over and flipped rapidly through the pages, not bothering to stop on her late husband's picture. It was his Family Book.
She married Mohammed, a vegetable seller, when she was 17, and they had three children before he died of tuberculosis. She closed the booklet and put it back on the shelf. Now, she is more concerned with the five names that are not written in the book.
After her husband's death, Kanzi met a new man named Ahmed. Ahmed was an addict and an alcoholic. She said he took no interest in their children, and mistreated her in front of them.
"I took responsibility for the children," she said. "I knew he would not be a good father." Her brother-in-law, who lives next door, helps her keep Ahmed away from her and the children.
She worries that her children could end up homeless or drug addicts like their father. She would bring them to an association for help if she could, but as an illiterate single mother with nobody to turn to for guidance, she feels hopeless.
That feeling of hopelessness is common among families in this situation. Another single mother, who prefers to be referred to only as Khadija, has struggled to raise her four young children while living on the streets.
After being forced to leave her family's home upon their realization of her first pregnancy, Khadija spent much time on the move. Each of her children was born in a different city.
"They just come from the same mother," she said, explaining that they do not have the same father but they are all siblings. "They're from the same belly."
Khadija settled in the central city of Khourbiga after meeting a woman who claimed she could help her find a place to live and register her children. However, once Khadija ran out of rent money, she was once again kicked out without any of the promises being met.
At this point she left for Casablanca. She lived in the train station for a week with her four children, including her youngest, 3-month-old Wiam. Eventually she found Samusocial, an association with a branch in Casablanca that helps homeless women and children.
"I'm resting here," she said, noting that the most important thing to do while staying at Samusocial is to finally register her children.
While a number of organizations like Samusocial, L'Association Solidarite Feminine, and Insaf exist to assist families in these situations, they are often too overwhelmed to offer their help soon.
The last association Kanzi spoke with told her to come back in September.
"I don't have anyone," said Kanzi, frustrated by the latest setback. "Only God."
Lauren Kopchik and Rachel Woolf spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Islam Abdelouali contributed reporting.