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Moroccan prostitutes focus of controversial AIDS education effort

By Siham Ali for Magharebia in Raba – 23/07/10

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The AIDS epidemic is moving at two speeds in Morocco: one for the general population and another for sex workers. But despite worries that prostitutes will transmit the disease to the public, "safe sex" awareness campaigns are meeting some resistance.

"Even though prostitution has always existed in Morocco, it is difficult for Moroccan society, which is seen as conservative, to acknowledge it," says sociologist Ilham Berachi, adding that many people perceive awareness-raising efforts to stop the spread of the disease as encouraging prostitution.

The dilemma for civil society activists: how to change mindsets without appearing to condone prostitution.

Rabat worker Salim Badaoui is among those criticising the efforts being made by charities to help prostitutes. He sees AIDS awareness campaigns as clear incitements to debauchery.

"We're a conservative society and we need to hold onto what sets us apart," he tells Magharebia. Prostitution is already illegal and punishable by prison in Morocco.

But as MP Fatima Moustaghfir points out, prostitution has always existed in societies throughout the world. Despite criminalising prostitution, Morocco still has a sex worker population.

"We need to educate these women so that they can protect themselves against disease and to prevent them infecting others," she says.

Only about 22,700 cases of Morocco's 30 million people have HIV, Dr. Aziza Benanni of the Moroccan Health Ministry said last year, but officials hope to prevent any increase.

Raising awareness of the harm done by AIDS is equally important for both prostitutes and customers, notes MP and Imam Abdelbari Zemzemi.

"You're not encouraging them by making them aware. On the contrary, you're encouraging them to be fully conscious of the risks they run. This is more like dissuasion," he says.

Mourad Choumali, a bank clerk, says that "every citizen has a right to know what is what". Prostitutes, he says, are a vulnerable group who need to be educated to avoid the worst.

Samira, 32, a prostitute, says people should be less hasty to cast judgement. "People need to know that we're also vulnerable human beings," she tells Magharebia. "We respect Moroccan society and we don't reveal what we're doing to our families or neighbours because we know full well that it's not acceptable."

"It's circumstances which have pushed us into this profession. We should at least be made aware, rather than catching AIDS and spreading the disease in Morocco," she says. "I've never felt that awareness-raising sessions were an encouragement to continue along this career path."

Despite the criticism, civil society in Morocco has thrown itself into the fight against AIDS. The Moroccan Association for the Fight Against AIDS (ALCS) and the Pan-African Organisation for the Fight Against AIDS (OPALS) have programmes dedicated to those they call "sex professionals".

They organise sessions to teach prostitutes how to protect themselves and avoid infection. It has been seen that as the level of education rises, the use of condoms is more widespread.

For women who turn to prostitution, these NGOs offer a variety of resources, The ALCS, for example, offers sessions on family planning, human rights, self-esteem, the correct use of condoms and how to persuade clients to use them.

Aïcha, 38, has been working as a prostitute since she was 20. She tells Magharebia that it is not easy to talk her clients into using a condom.

"Some will use one without me asking, but most of the clients refuse to wear it. I've never managed to demand it. But thanks to the awareness sessions run by ALCS, I've recently been able to convince clients to wear a condom," she says.

It's a different story for sex workers who have never attended one of these special training classes.

Most sex workers lack basic knowledge of how to prevent AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases, OPALS found in its 2008 survey of Moroccan prostitutes.

Of 500 sex workers interviewed, 483 reported sex with up to 50 clients in the course of a single week. But they knew nothing about STIs or AIDS.

More than 43% of the prostitutes did not use protection during intercourse. Some 30% of the prostitutes 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 OPALS President Nadia Bezzad.

The study found that only 11.9% of respondents insisted on condom use. Many prostitutes avoided condoms so as to not "bother" the client or have to deduct the cost from their charges.

Two years after the first-of-its kind study, condom costs are indeed too high, according to Bezzad. She has called for the price to be reduced to 1 dirham. At the moment, three condoms cost 20 dirhams. She also criticises the lack of automatic vending machines on the streets, when pharmacies close in the evening.

Fatima, 29, was completely unaware of the ways in which AIDS is transmitted until the day her friend talked her into going to one of the awareness sessions.

"It wasn't easy for me to go along to the charity because I've lived my whole life without other people's support. Going along with my friend, I found out quite a few things. No-one judged me. In fact, they encouraged us to protect our health and our lives," she explains.

"I was able to have a free test. Fortunately, I'm clear," Fatima adds.

Samira has another problem: fear of the police.

"We're frightened of the police stop-and-search campaigns. If they find us with condoms in our bags, then as far as the police are concerned, that's proof that we're involved in prostitution. But there are always ways of hiding them. I've learned that you don't take muck about when it comes to health."

Prostitutes say they're grateful for the work being done by the charity workers. The charities are also trying to educate potential clients.

ALCS distributes condoms and information literature (leaflets, posters, stickers, etc.) and other tools designed for truckers (log books, pin-up maps, audio cassettes etc.). The organisation also promotes free, anonymous testing services.

ALCS president Hakima Himmich says the fight against AIDS and HIV is also a fight for all populations vulnerable to this infection due to social, cultural or legal marginalisation, be they women, homosexuals, drug users, sex workers or detainees.

"Unless we can conquer the stigmatisation of these communities, unless they can access treatment, then we won't win in the fight against AIDS," she tells Magharebia.

Himmich adds, "If we don't raise awareness among this vulnerable population, we might as well shut up shop and go home."

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  1. Anonymous thumb

    Essid 2011-10-30

    [4] Continuation to Belhajilali- Thirdly, instead of criminalising prostitutes, we have more of a need to rehabilitate them by offering them vocational training, psychological therapy and financial support to change professions as well as ensuring them a place in society where they will be respected as human beings rather than continued to be ostracised. But truly enforcing such a campaign will be an uphill battle because it requires a change in our mentalities. Our culture is dominated by males, and the dominator always wants all the privileges and none of the accountability. For this reason, men get the green light to voluntarily procure the services of a prostitute with only the slightest rebuke, but prostitutes are treated like sub-humans when they are only doing what they have to do to survive or what they are being forced to do (frequently violently). This is the pinnacle of chauvinism and it must be eradicated if we are going to solve this issue, which weighs so heavily on the physical and emotional health of so many women and men.


  2. Anonymous thumb

    Essid 2011-10-30

    [3] Continuation to Belhajilali- … How do you explain this? The unemployment of young graduates women and the time before getting their first jobs seem to be the most pertinent causes.” The example you gave about 40,000 dirhams is the exception to the rule, not the rule. Such an income is not at all representative of the living conditions of the vast majority of prostitutes. It is for this reason that your statement that prostitution is worse than adultery makes no sense. For most prostitutes, prostitution is a last resort for their survival or a mode of living that is forced upon them (frequently violently). On the other hand, adultery is a choice. All that said, if we want to combat prostitution, then the best way to do this is a three-fold campaign: Firstly, pimps and their accomplices (who include corrupt police officers) need to be held criminally responsible for their actions and be jailed. Currently, the punishment for pimping amounts to a small fine or a small amount of jail time when you consider how much money they “earn” off these enslaved prostitutes and how many lives they have ruined. Secondly, the clients of prostitutes need to be held criminally responsible for purchasing the services of a prostitute. Currently, there is almost no punishment for the clients because our culture and thus law enforcement is quite chauvinistic and places all blame on the women, who are forced into this profession out of necessity, and no blame on the clients who voluntarily decide to procure their services.


  3. Anonymous thumb

    Essid 2011-10-30

    [2] Continuation to Belhajilali- The criminals would take the money they received from begging and offer them “protection”, shelter and food. In reality, this is just racketeering and slavery. When the girls come of age (9 to 14 years old), the criminal becomes their pimp and forces the girls to prostitute themselves. He then takes the majority of the money again as a form of racketeering. The prostitutes often never keep the money, and those who do manage to keep some of it, keep very little. And still other prostitutes who work for themselves – something that is very rare – earn very little money and are only doing this work because they cannot find work elsewhere to pay for themselves or their family (this is especially the case for girls whose boyfriends impregnated them and then abandoned them for whatever selfish reason). In short, the vast majority of prostitutes are prostitutes because they are unable to find work elsewhere either because they do not possess the skills since they are illiterate and are not educated or because society has ostracised them for things that they are not responsible for. I suggest the following article: http://www.afrik.com/article15701.html. I will cite some parts of it: “Poverty is the first factor that forces some women to sell the bodies, but the weight of illiteracy, which is tied to income, is equally very heavy. This is a fact of social and professional exclusion. 31.5% of the (500) prostitutes interviewed in this study had never been to school. Yet, there was one shocking result: 21.1% of them made it all the way to higher education and even sometimes have degrees. …


  4. Anonymous thumb

    Essid 2011-10-30

    [1] To Belhajilali- You make several good points, particularly with regards to education about STDs. However, you lack information on several other points and thus your comment is a source of disinformation in this regard. You said the following: “This has become a profession that generates a lot of money and, no matter what anyone says – no one prostitutes themselves just to not die of hunger.” This is not true for the vast majority of prostitutes in Morocco. I am a psychologist and for several years in the 1990s I worked with an NGO in rehabilitating prostitutes in Morocco and I still have contacts in these NGOs. What I can tell you is that most of these women are not educated. Almost a third of prostitutes have never gone to school and more than half of the prostitutes are illiterate. This ensures that they have very few opportunities for employment. On top of this many prostitutes have a tragic history. Some are sold at a very young age (9 to 14 years old) by their families in order to pay for some debt that the family has acquired. Some are raped or molested at a young age and their families abandon them. This is because in our culture there is a tendency to wrongly hold women who are the victims of rape and molestation accountable for the crimes committed against them. The result is that these victims of sexual abuse can find no other work besides being sexually abused further as prostitutes. And some begin their lives as beggars. During their childhood they were street children who worked as beggars for some criminal.


  5. Anonymous thumb

    Belhajilali 2011-10-27

    Adultery is the most grievous of sins after promiscuity and prostitution. The is the scourge of all time and it sometimes causes incurable illnesses. In other words, the practice in question is doubly harmful, but the evil is here and it would, simply put, be stupid to make it taboo because our society is allegedly conservative. We need to thus dare to face this phenomenon and take to fighting it on several fronts, starting with making people – both men and women – aware of the dangers that sexually transmitted diseases present by publicising the results of research done on the matter, images and – why not? – television programmes to really show the effects of STD on affected people. We need to allow and/or force the media to invest itself more intensely in this fight. What is more, the state should further reinforce its legal arsenal against prostitution. We must clamp down on it. This does not please everyone, but it is necessary because this has become a profession that generates a lot of money and, no matter what anyone says – no one prostitutes themselves just to not die of hunger. This is not true. The third measure, which is probably not the last, will give rise to objections. It consists of having interested NGO give prostitutes a hotline to come to their aid if they truly want to repent so that with the help of volunteers, they can be taken out of this business and cared for and found work. And when, for example, in a small village as far out in the countryside as mine, in southern Zerhoun, a young man has to spend a minimum of 40,000 dirhams – yes, 40,000 – in order to penetrate the “golden cage”, what do you expect to happen to him? Enlighten me?


  6. Anonymous thumb

    Essid 2011-6-10

    To Jeridi Ali- What does the location of Magharebia’s journalist in Libya have to do with AIDS and prostitution in Morocco, what is the subject of the article?


  7. Anonymous thumb

    jeridi ali 2011-6-3

    Your journalist Asmaa Elourfi is in Benghazi, not Tripoli, so what she knows of Libya is only Benghazi. Moreover, she has only contacted people installed by Europe’s leaders and, not to be forgotten, Bernard-Henry Lévy. Why didn’t the ICC judge Bush when he did Iraq? We in the Grand Maghreb do not want a second Iraq here. Moreover, Mustapha Abdel Jalil is considered to be like Iraq’s Chalabi. I thank the position of our Algerian brothers. Thank you


  8. Anonymous thumb

    O.MOUSSA 2011-6-2

    Prostitutes are victims of a male society. Our religion, Islam, insisted on the prohibition of unlawful sexual relations.


  9. Anonymous thumb

    VIH/SIDA 2011-2-27

    HIV is an important issue, so I am glad to see that there are so many good comments in this forum and so many good response to those comments that are bad. I thought that Fatma’s comment was particularly astute. Condoms should be free in Morocco and in every country, especially countries with such poverty. Most prostitutes became prostituted because they had no other way get an income or because they were sexually abused at a young age. Prostitution is not a lucrative profession in Morocco, so any price that is more expensive than free is too expensive for these women. If we want to curb the transmission of HIV, then we need to make condoms freely accessible to these prostitutes. Moreover, we need female condoms in this country and every country. Too many men are unwilling to wear condoms or will intentionally remove or break the condom without the prostitute’s consent, so we need to supply these prostitutes with female condoms. I also agree with Fatma that people need to stop judging other. There is almost no one who wants to be a prostitute. This is the profession that people choose because they have no other way to buy food for themselves or their children. Prostitutes are not evil; they are human beings whose lives are more tragic than most of us can imagine. So please, instead of being judgmental, be sympathetic and try to do something that will actually help these people and that will help yourself since HIV is a risk to everyone.


  10. Anonymous thumb

    Essid 2011-2-23

    To صابرية- You cannot pick and choose who gets this disease. A loyal partner can be victim to a disloyal partner. The biology of the disease has no respect for social values. That said, it is very important that we fight HIV/AIDS among our sex workers. Sex workers not only have the highest risk of contracting the virus, but also the have the highest rate of transmitting the virus. And regardless of whether or not you think the men who have sex with sex workers are evil, these men put their wives and girlfriends at risk. So, the initiative to teach sex workers about safe sex and to supply them with free condoms is a good one. Moreover, I think you are being insensitive regarding sex workers. These women’s lives are hell. No woman chooses to be a sex worker because they think the profession will be fun. Most of these women have ended up as sex workers because they were psychologically, physically and sexually abused at a young age and/or because they are in extreme poverty. Who are you to judge them? Rather than pretend to be pious, when you are in fact judging people, why not try to help these women? As for the men who visit sex workers, they too are the victims of psychological abuse. However, this abuse is often very different. This abuse is intrinsic to our culture, which teaches men that it is acceptable to treat women as nothing more than slaves who fulfil their desires.


  11. Anonymous thumb

    Ahmed 2011-2-19

    "It's circumstances which have pushed us into this profession". We have to look into the circumstances which is still pushing young Moroccan girls into these areas, which is very bad for people of these wonderful country. Hope some one is there to educate and help to stop further girls in these kind of circumstances. Ameen Morocco is good country, its people is wonderful, May God protect this country and help the poor people, ameen.


  12. Anonymous thumb

    Fatma 2011-1-18

    It is essential that free or very cheap condoms are made available to everyone, not only prostitutes. My God, 20 dirhams for 3! It is as if the Moroccan government wants its people to die! Prostitution, pre-marital sex, and extra-marital sex are facts of life. By not providing protection, people do not discourage these practices. Prostitution is a reality for women who have nothing else. At least they are working. I suppose they could sit in the street begging in tattered clothes with someone else's baby latched to their exposed breast. Or maybe they could just go die somewhere. These are women who have decided to make money to support themselves rather than lie down and die. I knew a woman in my neighborhood who sold her body for sex in order to put her daughter in a good school that would give the girl a future. She wanted more for her daughter than what she had for herself. The daughter is now grown and works for the government. She supports her mother now. But tell me, what was the mother supposed to do? Her family was utterly impoverished. They sold her as a child to be a live-in unpaid cleaning girl. The family that bought her never educated educated her. She is illiterate. As an adult, she could not get work cleaning. Not every woman in her position is able to find work as a maid. There are too many of them. She could not support herself or her child by selling parsley in the street. So she sold herself. The woman had dignity and dreams. She did what she could to make a better life for her own daughter than was done for her. People need a reality check into the lives of these women. The Prophet (s) taught us to have empathy and care for each other. Giving them condoms is the first step in that process.


  13. Anonymous thumb

    Rambo 2010-10-26

    The awareness campaign is essential even though many Morocans are still in denial. Morocan Ladies are wonderful and resourceful personalities all over the world. However, we cannot deny the fact that a few of them are at risk of contracting the dreadful HIV/AIDS. Their involvement in prostitution is obvious. Reactions to this might differ variously as there are two sides to the coin. The government establishments and many families would often tend to present and uphold the conservative Moroccan society devoid of vices such as prostitution. While the realists are more often to admit that the problems exist and would need an urgent and sensible approach to prevent its attending issues. Preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS through public sensitization does not in any way amount to support for sexual immorality. It is an established fact that prostitution as a vice is as old as the human history. The users of the prostitutes' services are varied and are mostly the productive members of the society. If you do not support and even sponsor such programmes now, the entire society will be the loser. A decline in productivity, a full blown epidemic and an unecessary stigma (fo all Moroccan ladies)are some of the problems that will follow in just a few years to come. I say a big thank you to all of you who are doing your best to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, other veneral diseases and unwanted pregnacies and DIY abbotions that are now threathening to ravage Morocco


  14. Anonymous thumb

    صابرية 2010-9-29

    In reality, I am with raising awareness about AIDS but not for prostitutes and men who wish that. I am with women who are victims and get the disease from their husbands and transmit it to innocent kids and also for everyone who gets the disease from a shaving razor, a needle, when donating blood…


  15. Anonymous thumb

    Essid 2010-8-3

    To Ysamin- I wonder: How does God looks upon someone who pretends to be God? Maybe Hell is even bigger than you think. As far as I know, our mission in life should be to help one another, not to curse each other with various diseases, many of which lead to painful deaths. I think that if you were a good Muslim, you would leave the task of judging and damning to God, and only do your best to help everyone avoid doing harm to others and from being harmed themselves. As such, the person securing his place in Hell is you - you do nothing to help out your fellow human beings. What could be more moral than stopping the spread of a painful and deadly disease? Even if you loath prostitutes and find yourself incapable of sympathising with the unfortunate life that most likely led them to entering such a profession, you must understand that their clients often return home to their unknowing wives and children and transfer HIV to them. So, do you think the deaths of 4 million children are justified? That is how many children are presently infected with HIV. To Sammy- While it is grand and glorious that celibacy and monogamy would eradicate HIV, the fact is that most humans are not monogamous. So, even if you are monogamous, there is a good chance that your spouse is not. No one likes to think this, but a substantial percentage of men and women cheat on their wives and husbands (no matter the country). People who are monogamous are still at risk. As such, teaching about other forms of prevention is necessary.


  16. Anonymous thumb

    ysamin 2010-7-31

    Hell is bigger than what you think. God will take revenge on you very soon, God willing. Hey, dogs, let prostitutes die of the shame of Aids, syphilis, gonorrhoea… Leave them alone and don’t help them. Those who help them will secure a place next to them in hell. Aren’t you Muslims?


  17. Anonymous thumb

    BEN 2010-7-28

    An awareness campaign, but what is it being accompanied with!? How much do condoms cost at the pharmacy? Is this a marketing campaign based on fear or a prevention campaign? People know how to tell the difference.


  18. Anonymous thumb

    Sammy 2010-7-24

    Just get married and be true to you husband/wife and that's how AIDS will be eradicated. Yes, it's that simple.


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