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Almost every week in Marrakech you'll hear a story about a child found alone in the street—whispers that a baby was left near a garbage dump. These are realities in Morocco, where abortion is mostly illegal, sexual relations outside of marriage are forbidden by law, and social stigma can press some mothers to abandon their children.

Illegitimate children in Morocco are technically illegal. Many have no papers and no last name and are treated as outcasts; and while it is possible to register and legitimize them through legal avenues, it has sometimes been an ordeal for the unwed mothers, who rightly fear that they may end up in prison for adultery. Between poverty and religious stigma—plus a disproportionately high rate of disabled babies being discarded—there is a host of fears around the thousands of children who are abandoned every year, a number estimated at 5,700 in 2009, and thought to be increasing nationally. Many of these children will never be adopted; many are at risk of human trafficking.

Instead of adoption, in Morocco there is the system of child custody known as kafala, which administers the guardianship of illegitimate children but doesn't give them the right to assume the name of their adoptive family. For parents who wish to adopt, the kafala procedure can take a few months to a year or more; it's also available only to Muslims, which limits foreign adoptions. The culture of adoption among Moroccans still favors girls, who are preferred to boys as they are considered easier to raise—though in some cases they are adopted largely to help with the daily household chores.

The state places abandoned children in various children's homes throughout the country. One of these is La Ligue Marocaine Pourla Protection de l’Enfance (LMPE) Marrakech, a branch of the larger LMPE association, with locations in Morocco's biggest cities. The non-profit group cares for hundreds of children by providing a warm, home-like environment; it also gives aid to mothers in distress, in some cases assigning a social worker and a psychologist to assist.

This is one solution to the problem of Morocco's "illegal" children: tackling the problem of abandonment right at the source, by giving mothers therapy and vocational training to maximize the chances that they can become better caregivers. It appears to be working: More and more mothers have decided to leave their babies at LMPE for just a few months—a necessary period where they can look for a job or deal with family issues before taking permanent custody. Between May of 2010 and December of 2016, according to La Ligue, 599 mothers came to LMPE to "abandon" their children; of that number, 522 ultimately took them back—a testament to this humble but revolutionary model of nurturing support.


A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.