Moroccan prostitutes focus of controversial AIDS education effort
By Siham Ali for Magharebia in Raba – 23/07/10
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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