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Life as a Single Mother in Tunisia

Despite the fact that this current translation of an article published last year on Nawaat, the situation remains the same and the informations provided below are still valid.

For more than a decade, the Amal Association for families and children has been helping single mothers. In a society where sexual relations outside marriage are forbidden and where pregnancy is a drama, Amal provides support for these women and helps them to lay a foundation for life. To do so, Amal hosts single mothers in a home for about four months, enough to help them get back on their feet.

Crossing the threshold is like entering another universe. The atmosphere is full of love and joy. It’s 2 pm and time for a nap. There are children everywhere, sleeping newborns and gurgling babies. They look around and chew on their fingers with no thought to their observers. They’re like any other children, "love children," explains Semia. As Amal’s director, she heads up the only association in all of Tunisia that helps single mothers and encourages them to keep their children. Which is not a given in a conservative society, not at all.

In the association’s center, young mothers find a chance to catch their breath, to learn and to build. A great deal of courage is needed to start this new life. When Souad Abderrahim spoke about single mothers, she called them infamous. Had she even bothered to look one of these women in the eyes?

Far from the preconceived notion of a loose woman trolling the bars for a man with whom to pass the night, these single mothers are more often girls who fell in love and naively trusted their partners. Their average age is 24, are from urban and rural backgrounds, and one in five has some tertiary education. The child’s father is often a man they had been seeing for some time: relationships lasting between one and three years, approaching marriage. If society didn’t condemn their relationships, there would be nothing remarkable about them.

Meet the mothers at Amal.

The Creche: a Parenthesis.

"This here is the creche," explains Hajer, indicating the entry way of the residence with an expansive gesture. " The mothers work all day and leave their children with us. " Hajer is the director of the residence for single mothers. She spends her day with 18 babies. Their gurgles and smiles are part of the package. The children here are happy, they have mothers. There are cradles and parks in every corner. Th littlest children are curled up next to each other on blankets. This way, they become like siblings, and construct new families. While their mothers spend all day working, the children develop in peace. The mothers at the center are all working or taking part in training. In the evening, they come back to their babies and care for them, like any other mother who leaves her child with a caring nurse during the day.

" There are actually only 6 babies staying here at the moment. The others belong to single mothers who have spent time here at the center and who still need help. Until they start walking, we can keep them with us. But once they can walk, and need more space and activity, they go to a kindergarten " explains Hajer.

Six babies and one on the way. Dorsaf, a young woman who came to the center recently, will give birth soon.


The Arrival: Fear and Dread.

Dorsaf came to the center after hearing about it from a friend. It’s been some time since she left her parents’ house. Today she’s hiding.

Khadija came with her son in her arms. " A woman who was volunteering at the hospital had heard of the Amal Association. She’s the one who helped me get a spot. When she told me I could come I grabbed the stuff I had at my parents’ house and told them I’d found a job in the south and had to leave right away. I had no idea how things would be at the center. I just wanted to be with my son. "

Women dream about being pregnant and idealize what happens after giving birth. They think about going home, with their husbands, creating a clam nest and getting to know the baby, felling ecstatic about this tiny human being that we carry in our bellies for months and then hold close to our hearts.

But as a single mother, the situation is completely different. At first they try to hide, but when that isn’t possible, they have to deal with facing their families, the neighbors, and slander; feelings of anguish, guilt, being alone with one’s "fault," looking for a solution and coming up empty. Praying every morning that it was just a bad dream, recoiling in front of an ever growing stomach, trying to find bigger and bigger clothes, feeling consumed with hatred at the body’s betrayal and having to keep all these feeling bottled up. Why don’t men suffer the consequences of their " mistake " why can they just leave it behind when that’s impossible for a woman?

Dishonor is the daily bread for these girls, so many leave their hometown hoping to live anonymously in a larger city. But there are many obstacles: whether to keep or give up the baby, how to deal with the reproaches of an angry family, being abandoned by the baby’s father…

"When they get here, many of the girls suffer from depression. They’ve lost their bearings. We see a lot of issues: anxiety, distress, aggressiveness, bulimia…all of which are caused by their abandonment, whether on the part of their family or their partner…we do a lot of work on self-esteem, so that they can feel they belong," explains Samira, the center’s psychologist.

"When they get to the center, they are frightened, they don’t know anything about the area, they’ve just come from the hospital and it’s not always a good experience. Some of them even think the center is a prison! So the first thing I do is to reassure them, talking to them and helping them feel comfortable. I take them to their rooms, give them their sheets, whatever they need to wash the baby, and I explain how things work around here. Then they meet the other girls and after a few hours, they feel they feel relieved and are able to relax," says Hajer.

One of the first tasks is helping the girls get past their feelings of guilt. Working on self-esteem and coming to terms with being a single mother starts there: "We’ve realized that at this point the child can help the mother, because the baby loves her unconditionally. So after being rejected by the people around them, these young women benefit greatly from this unconditional love and start to feel better, since before often they felt completely unloved," explains Samira.

All in all, the center has 17 bedrooms, each one with a bed for the mother and a little bed for the baby. The baby’s bed makes the room resemble that of a little girl who loves to play with dolls, and creates the priceless sensations of peace and calm. But nights must still be dark and frightening when they girls reflect that they are alone and must face the future, having just gone through a difficult experience.

The Delivery: Loneliness.

At five o’clock in the afternoon, the girls start returning from work. They sit on the couches in the couches in the entrance and greet their babies. Seated among the other girls, Dorsaf looks a little lost. She is thinking about the birth, which is not far off. She is frightened, which is normal, because giving birth is not an easy thing. Especially when it’s the first time, and you’re young, and neither the baby’s father, nor any member of your family, will be there to hold your hand.

What is more, some of the girls report that some of the doctors or nurses were unpleasant or judgmental at the hospital. Sometimes, instead of calling the babies by their names, they just say "social misfit". Since giving birth is a tough experience, one imagines that the personnel would take good care of the mothers, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Judgment is everywhere: in the gruff manner of some of the hospital staff, in the looks in people’s eyes, and above all in the absence of family: giving birth alone gives way to all kinds of prejudice.

And then it’s time for what amounts to a cross examination. How many men do you know and how many have you slept with? Are you sure which one is the father? Once the delivery is complete, first a social worker, and then an official from the Ministry of the Interior comes to talk with the mother. Some behave properly, but others assume an inappropriate air. One can imagine the looks, sighs, and air of disgust from these officials, whose job it is to "protect" the child. Ever since the Family Law was implemented in 1988, all children born in Tunisia must have the names of both parents. So the agents of the Ministry of the Interior use the information they get from the mother to search for the father.

"Actually, they know how to differentiate between girls who were in a relationship and ones who have been with a lot of men, because they are generally known to the authorities," explains Khadija.

This procedure is inescapable. There is a national commission whose responsibility is to track out of wedlock children. They use these files to identify them and also to detect prostitutes, in case they have escaped the attention of the police until then. At least that is how it seems.

This isn’t really a problem for Khadija; she knows who the father of her baby is, since he’s the only man in her life. So she is not worried about the results of the DNA test that will be done. Those results will allow her son to have a name.

The Center: Rebuilding.

"The girls are usually here for four months, enough time to get back on their feet, which is what’s most important. When one of them decides to keep her baby, she also needs to be able to provide for him," explains Hajer, the director. Something about her suggests that she is able to work miracles. She doesn’t judge, she is happy just to help. She gives and each girl is free to take. The Amal Association’s goal is for single mothers to keep their babies and be able to live a stable life.

"When the girls get here, we help them find a job. We can’t line something up for them, but we can help them in their search. Sometimes women actually come to us looking for live-in maids, or housekeepers."

These women aren’t offering a rosy future or interesting work. Just a job that will let the girls eke out a living, pay for bills and groceries. That’s it. And then some of the girls who can’t find work right away decide to get some trainings: as a hairdresser, an aid or a baker…those are the options as far as work is concerned.

At the center the young women also learn how to be mothers. "We teach the girls everything, because no one else is there to teach them. We explain what you need to do to take care of the baby, how to feed it, how to give him any necessary medicine, give a bath…and we put a lot of emphasis on cleanliness," explains Hajer.

Samira focuses on other things. When the mothers have finished the work day and come home to their babies, Samira works on the mother-child relationship.

"When the mothers get here, they don’t know what to do. They are very fragile psychologically and it’s very difficult for them to take care of their children properly. We show hem what to do and we also work hard on building up their self-esteem. So we look for what the girls enjoy and what they are good at, because otherwise they have trouble seeing their strengths. And once they regain some confidence, they start taking interest in life again and take better care of their babies."

Their days resemble those of any mother: in the morning they leave the baby at the creche and go to work, and then in the evening they come home and have family time. At the center, they have help while they learn what to do. This is very important, because single parents don’t have the luxury of counting on someone else.


The Family: Guilt.

Unlike mothers who have support from their mother, sisters cousins and aunts, the girls at the center are on their own. No one helps them or shows them the way. This notion of honor is what drives their abandonment, but isn’t it also dishonorable to desert a person in need?

It’s very difficult to be cut off from one’s family. And that loss is apparent quickly. Most of the girls maintained relationships with their families before the got pregnant. "I miss my family so much," says Khadija. "But when I look at my son, I forget everything else. He means the world to me. And he’s happy since he is with me." Right at that moment, little Hosni turns his head towards her and smiles. IS it chance or instinct?

"When I talk to the girls, it becomes apparent that many of them are emotionally deprived and had interpersonal problems with some of their family members," explains Samira, the psychologist.

"I didn’t say anything to my family," explains Latifa. "My child is a year and a half old and I left home two years ago, so no one has any idea that I have a child." But leaving doesn’t mean living in peace. Most girls are from the capital or from the north west region. They come to Tunis in order to disappear: to find work in a neighborhood where no one knows their and they don’t feel judged.

Or almost. Because the girls still fear the possibility of running into a friend of the family. And that their secret will be discovered.

Khadija told her aunt that she was pregnant, so she was with her during delivery. Her sister and mother also know, but her father has no idea. "When my brother found out, he said I was no longer welcome at home, that I had brought shame to my family."

The girls are consumed by guilt and remorse and haunted by dishonor. It’s impossible to feel at peace.

They have been rejected by their families, by their lovers, their friends; by society at large. They are torn between their love for their families, respect for their parents, their guilty feelings and love for their children. They wander for a while before getting their act together in order to provide for their children. Every time Afef looks at her son, she seems to say: "I’ve buried my past and I’m trying to stand on my own two feet so I can give you a leg up on life."

The father : Lie.

What hurts the most is to be abandoned by the child’s father, a man they loved and who lied. Often they discovered too late that he was married, engaged to someone else, or that he had given a false name.

When the fathers disappear, the girls feel bitter. The police put out missing person notices and try to fix the situation. But during this time the girls are haunted by the resemblance to these men they see in the faces of their children.

Even with out an outright lie, there is often a dispute. "When I got pregnant, m boyfriend didn’t believe me. We’d been together for three years and I had never gotten pregnant before, even though I wasn’t on the pill," explains Khadija. It was only when the police made him take a paternity test that he understood he was the father.

And then, the father’s family also gets involved, forbidding the marriage, denying any responsibility. As if the woman was solely to blame for the baby’s existence. As if the man were not an equal partner in conception.

The father take a long time to acknowledge the baby and even once the DNA results are published, they don’t come to visit right away, or ask for a photo, or even call to see how the baby is doing. The girls are left to their own devices to fight for their child’s legitimation. Being alone and abandoned by someone they loves is the most difficult part of the ordeal.

Some of the girls do end up marrying the baby’s father and getting on with their lives, but often that man is their only true love. After this heartbreaking experience, all they look for is stability and security, putting aside their own desires in order to find a father for their child.


The Baby: Love.

The first thing for the girls to learn at the center is to love their child. Which is easier said than done, since often the pregnancy has robbed the mother of any balance in her life.

"I spend a lot of time working on the mother-child tie because in the beginning many of the mothers reject the baby. The project their feelings of guilt, fault and inferiority onto the baby. Many of the girls say that they are not normal, that they are lacking something that other girls who aren’t single mothers have." explains Samira, the center’s psychologist.

Once the mothers are at ease with themselves, which takes work on their self-esteem and confidence, Only then are they able to open up. But then it’s time for another battle: legitimation, for the child first.

"I don’t want my child to be a…., a…., I don’t even want to say the word, it breaks my heart." Khadija doesn’t want her child to be a bastard. So when the results of the DNA test were positive, Khadija was relieved to see her son legitimated and her reputation almost restored. Because that is what’s at stake: whether you’re a prostitute with a string of lovers and and children to match or just the victim of bad luck.

When the girl doesn’t give a name, or the father can’t be found, then it’s the judge’s responsibility to give the child a name, so that no one will know the mother was unmarried and that no one can bully the child for having only one parent. Giving the child a surname is standard practice in a closed society, where the mother’s name is of little value, and she herself counts for very little, even though she is the one raising her child.

The other issue that comes up is abandonment. "Many single mothers leave their child at the hospital until they’re able to get settled," explains Hajer, the director. And that’s another wound that needs to be healed. Will the child remember this time? Will he be able to forgive having been left alone for those days, weeks, or months?

As for Samira, she believes that love can heal most wounds. "In a healthy family, our parents care for us and we see love in their actions, but they don’t necessarily verbalize that love. So here we work on that. We explain to the girls that they need to tell the child they love them. At eighteen months, a child understands almost 50% of the words we use, and so they understand when we express love." Single mothers are doubly invested in their child, since they play two roles. This love is what will help their children grow up stable and well-balanced, and to succeed in school. "Many of the children who were at our center are geniuses at school and it’s very gratifying for us to see them succeed," says Semia, the association’s president.

The Departure: Courage.

Once the young mothers have gotten their lives together, found a job and a little apartment, they leave the center. Afef will be leaving shortly, any day now, in fact. She will take her six month old son with her. And she’ll share a studio with another mother. "In general, the girls leave in groups of two or three, so they won’t be too disoriented and so they can acclimate to life outside the center gradually," explains Hajer, the director.

Leaving means facing reality, beginning with financial matters. "In the beginning we help out; we give the girls diapers and food, fore example, and we make sure their apartments are suitable. And then, little by little, we start giving them less, so that they get the hang of looking out for themselves, like in real life," Hajer says.

Leaving is a leap of faith, but it’s not a step that’s taken lightly. For many months they girls have been learning: getting to know their child, learning to be a mother, to be responsible. And learning to budget. "Rent is very expensive for me on my own, and even if I can find a roommate to split it with me, I’m not sure what to do, because I also need to buy milk and diapers…" And even without doing the math, Afef already knows that her pockets will be empty before the end of the month. Most likely she’ll need to find a second job to stay afloat.

Is it because the center and the creche are so close, or the feeling f security because of the bond that has been created? Most of the girls don’t venture too far from the neighborhood. "In the end, we feel like a big family and when one of the girls leaves, she leaves a real void behind," explains Khadija. "Many families in the neighborhood rent rooms to the girls, since they know them. And that’s practical for the girls because that way they can still leave the baby here with us when they go to work and they don’t have to come up with carfare to get here," explains Hajer.

When the girls are ready to leave, it means that they have made great strides psychologically. It takes a lot of courage to be a single mother: "like being on the warpath against the whole world, against society, one’s family, the father…but in the end, everyone has a mother, it’s something that we humans all share, so who cares…" ventures Samira. Who care what people say about single mothers? Who cares if they raise their child alone or with a man? Who care if their numbers are greater or smaller, or if they are young or old…there have always been single mothers and there will always be. But the most important thing is that they are mothers.

At 7 o’clock, when the girls have finished the housework and tidying up the center, they gather at the table. At the door, Kaïs the guardian, watches over the center like a grandfather. He’s the only man at the center. Sitting in an old plastic chair, he chats with the neighbors. When all the girls have come home, he closes the doors and goes on his way. It’s time to rest. Tomorrow is another day.


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