Saturday, November 7, 2009

Moroccan receives $1 million Opus Prize

I had a rough week last week and was getting down on Morocco. However, this story helped renew my faith in the people here. Education and particularly women's education is one of the greatest challenges facing Morocco. Illiteracy rates among rural women reach 80%!

Excerpted from News Release:
Aïcha Ech Channa, founder and president of a Casablanca, Morocco, organization that provides services to unmarried women with children, is the winner of the $1 million 2009 Opus Prize.

The University of St. Thomas and the Opus Prize Foundation of Minnetonka conferred the award Wednesday night at an event in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The other two finalists – Sister Valeriana García-Martín of Bogotá, Colombia, and Father Hans Stapel of Guaratinguetá, Brazil – each received $100,000 awards.

The honorees, who will use the award money from the Opus Prize Foundation to further their faith-based humanitarian efforts, were recognized as unsung heroes creatively transforming lives through a commitment to service and social entrepreneurship.

“The Opus Prize recognizes individuals whose work and story can inspire us to tackle the world’s most deeply rooted problems,” said Amy Sunderland, executive director of Opus Prize Foundation. “They demonstrate what faith, will and vision can do to make our world a better place. They show us change is possible.”

While the Opus Prize Foundation has worked in partnership with Catholic universities since 2004 to make the annual award, the recipient may have roots in any faith.

Aïcha Ech Channa of Casablanca, Morocco
Aïcha Ech Channa
Ech Channa, 68, is something of an icon in Morocco when it comes to human and civil rights for single mothers and their children. During the 1980s she worked in the Moroccan Ministry of Social Affairs where she was confronted daily by the ordeals of single mothers.

She recalled an afternoon in a social worker’s office where a single mother was giving up her baby for adoption. “This mom was breastfeeding her baby, which means she never wanted to abandon it. And 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.”

In 1985, Ech Channa founded the Association Solidarité Féminine in Casablanca to provide services for single women and their children. She started in a basement and now operates three day-care centers and training schools, two restaurants, four kiosks and a hammam (fitness center and spa).

More than 50 women receive training every year in literacy, human rights, cooking, baking, sewing, fitness services and accounting. Participants also receive daily child care and medical treatments in addition to social, psychological and legal support and counseling for better reintegration in their society.

Ech Channa, a Muslim, says she gains inspiration from a sense of justice rooted in the value systems of all religions.“I want Solidarité Féminine to be a model that provides an example for the respect of human rights, economic development and confidence in humanism,” she says. “This is a model that can be carried everywhere in the world.”

Her organization was officially recognized in 2002 by the government as a charitable organization and has received support from Moroccan King Mohammed VI.

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