Moroccan study finds prostitutes lacking AIDS awareness
By Imrane Binoual in Casablanca and Sarah Touahri in Rabat for Magharebia—27/11/08
A groundbreaking study published in mid-November by the Morocco section of the Pan-African Organisation for the Fight Against AIDS (OPALS) focused on an activity that is a major source of sexually transmitted diseases – prostitution.
"Prostitution is closely linked with the economic, social and mental situation of those who are involved in it," the November 13th report said.
With a headquarters in Rabat and 16 branches across the Kingdom, OPALS is dedicated to fighting AIDS in three areas: prevention, community action and medical care, including gynecological services and free, anonymous screening.
To assess the magnitude of the problem in Morocco, OPALS researchers ventured into undocumented territory for the new study. More sex workers were interviewed than in any previous survey on sexual diseases, and the organisation conducted research in mid-Atlas towns such as El Hajeb, Azrou, Imouzzer and Khenifra, which had never before been studied in this way.
OPALS' findings pointed to one main conclusion: that a new awareness-raising strategy must be initiated to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Most sex workers in the country lack basic knowledge of how to prevent AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), the study found, noting that prostitutes and their clients often refuse to use condoms. Of 500 sex workers surveyed, 43.5% did not use protection during intercourse.
Some 30% of the prostitutes who participated in the study had also never been to school.
"What we’re finding is that there is ignorance of AIDS, no culture of prevention and little use of condoms," said OPAL Morocco President Nadia Bezzad.
The aim of the survey was to improve prevention, such as condom-usage and medical testing in order to curb health risks related to STDs, explained Professor Azzouz Ettounsi, a specialist in psycho-sociology who headed the study team.
Prevention efforts are undermined, however, by the lack of information about prostitution and its link to the spread of diseases in Morocco.
Prostitution is illegal and punishable by prison in Morocco. But some women still do it for financial reasons.
"It’s very difficult to get a clear idea of the national picture with regard to prostitution", Ettounsi said, "in particular because of its clandestine and illegal nature."
"It is also a diverse profession," he added. "While some prostitutes acknowledge that they are sex workers, there are also some who refuse to admit that they belong to the profession."
Some 13% of the surveyed prostitutes identified themselves as virgins who do not engage in complete intercourse. For that reason, they told researchers, they do not need to take precautions. They are mistakenly convinced that STDs and AIDS are only transmitted through penetrative intercourse.
"The survey showed us that misconceptions with regard to AIDS sufferers are rife," Bezzad confirmed. "The clear conclusion is that our message about AIDS is not getting through."
"We must not focus our efforts to combat AIDS solely on the use of condoms," she continued. "That is not working. We need to take all factors into account. Education is also very important, much more so than medicine. We must also look at the role of schools and the fight against illiteracy and poverty. "
One way to help sex workers is to provide them with a legal source of income, said Moha Ouali Arifi, president of the Social Association for the Development of Tighssaline.
The local initiative, Arifi explained, helps women of all backgrounds find job opportunities, regardless of their education level.
The Tighssaline association is also working to raise awareness among sex workers to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS.
"We firmly believe that human beings are valuable inside," she said. "We give women the training they need to get involved in sustainable development."
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