In a quiet suburb of Tunis lies a small white house, not so different from the other neat, well-kept villas of this residential area. But this residence discreetly accommodates members of a marginalised group Tunisian society: Unmarried mothers.
The house – actually an emergency shelter – is run by Amal, the only Tunisian association entirely dedicated to supporting unmarried mothers. It has 17 beds and houses about 50 women every year.
Tunisia is generally considered the most progressive country in the Arab world regarding women's rights; it was the first in the region to ban polygamy, to give women the right to vote and to legalise abortion. But despite this, the difficulties faced by unmarried mothers reveal the contradictions of this still largely conservative society.
As a consequence of breaking the taboo of having sexual relations out of wedlock – perceived as an infringement on family honour – many mothers are forced to flee their home, and find themselves excluded from social life and deprived of legal rights.
"I had a fiancé. But when he learned that I was pregnant he finally refused to marry me, confides Farida*, 25, mother of an 11-month baby girl. I didn't tell anything to my parents, I feared their reaction. So I left my region."
The Tunisian Ministry of Social Affairs counted 864 single mothers in 2014. But Malek Kefif, the president of Amal, puts the figure closer to 1,500.
"Many births are not declared and escape the legal system", he explains. Facing exclusion and precarious living conditions, more than a half of Tunisia's unmarried mothers resign themselves to giving up their baby.
|The difficulties faced by unmarried mothers reveal the contradictions of this still conservative society|
"When I gave birth I was homeless", recounts Malika*, 24, while rocking her baby in the cosy living room of the shelter. So I left my daughter at the National Institute for Child Protection (a public institution that takes in homeless children either temporarily or permanently).
"It was heart-breaking for me. Then a social worker directed me to Amal and told me the association could accommodate me and my child. Without Amal, I would have had to give away my daughter."
In Tunisia, abortion has been legal since 1973, though it remains forbidden in other North African countries such as Morocco or Algeria. The country has also had a family program since 1966. Despite this, there are major inequalities in access to reproductive healthcare, with little access to sex education at school.
"The women we accommodate have sometimes learned of their pregnancy after five or six months, when it was too late for abortion," explains Kefif.
"They often come from disadvantaged circles, with a low level of education and a misunderstanding of their body and contraceptive methods."
For unmarried mothers, the choice to keep their baby marks the beginning of a long and difficult fight to obtain basic rights for themselves and their child.
"Tunisian law doesn't recognise maternal affiliation", explains Monia Ben Jemia, a lawyer providing legal assistance to unmarried mothers, and president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.
"If an unmarried mother declares her child alone, the baby will take the name of the mother and will risk being stigmatised at school and in his professional and social life for being 'illegitimate'" she adds.
|We created our own training centre, because we found that public centres were not appropriate for unmarried mothers. They faced too much discrimination there
- Malek Kefif, president of Amal centre
In this context, the priority for unmarried mothers is often to make the father recognise the child, sometimes through a mediation process conducted with the support of the Amal shelter's staff.
Failing this, they can go to court, thanks to a law passed in 1998 called the "patronymic name law". It allows unmarried mothers to conduct a paternity search, using DNA testing if necessary, when the father is known but refuses to recognise his child. Where this is unsuccessful, an imaginary patronymic name and affiliation can be assigned to the child.
"But some mothers are reluctant to engage in such a process, even if it allows them to claim for alimony, because the recognition of paternity automatically gives guardianship to the father," says Ben Jemia.
"This means he is the one who decides, even though it is the mother who raised the child. At any moment, he can decide to exert power over his child's life – for example, intervening in crucial decisions regarding their education or healthcare. Another problem is that very often, jurisprudence denies an inheritance to children born out of wedlock."
|They feel ashamed of their situation. That is why we also try to help them improve their self-esteem and gain confidence in their own capabilities
- Rebah Ben Chaabane, psychologist at Amal
The Amal shelter provides legal and administrative training to unmarried mothers. They can also attend vocational training in cooking, tailoring or home support.
"We created our own training centre, because we found that public centres were not appropriate for unmarried mothers. They faced too much discrimination there," says Kefif.
"We also help them to find a job and a home because they are only supposed to stay at the shelter for four months. The end goal is their self-sufficiency and their reintegration into society," explains Hajer Zaiem, director of the shelter.
Despite the fact that most of these unmarried mothers have no qualifications, and that some are illiterate, the mothers usually manage to find a job relatively quickly. Farida is a domestic worker, while Malika is employed at a textile factory and has found a flat share with another unmarried mother she met at the shelter.
"But they are very poorly paid", says Rebah Ben Chaabane, who works as a psychologist at the shelter. "The employers take advantage of the fact that they are single mothers to exploit them. And the mothers are afraid to claim their rights. They feel ashamed of their situation. That is why we also try to help them improve their self-esteem and gain confidence in their own capabilities."
"I am exhausted. I love my daughter, I want the best for her, but I feel very anxious about my situation", says Farida. Mentalities have to change in Tunisia. I hope one day it won't be a shame anymore to have a child without being married."
*The names have been changed at the request of the mothers, who prefer remain anonymous for security reasons.
Perrine Massy is a French freelance journalist who has been based in Tunisia since 2013. She has worked for several Tunisian media outlets and co-founded the Tunisian web magazine Inkyfada.org. Follow her on Twitter: @PerrineMassy
Sebastian Castelier is a photojournalist specialising in the MENA region. Follow him on Twitter: @Scastelier