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The Moroccan Stigma Around Sexual Health
By Ida Sophie Winter
Originally published on World Policy Blog on July 27, 2015
It’s 11 p.m. in the springtime at a hospital between Ifrane and Fes. A potbellied man in his 50s and a young woman negotiate payment for an illegal procedure. Hugging her, the man tells her to undress, and she begins to shiver. Meriem* a university graduate, wonders if this is a nightmare.
He gives her a pill, injects her with an unidentified fluid, twice, and she returns home. Due to severe cramps, Meriem knows that this time, finally, the procedure will work.
Meriem attempted miscarriage with pills. She tried injections. Finally, in a Rabat clinic, Meriem ended her pregnancy. Though she suffered no lasting physical consequences, the psychological and financial costs were significant.
In searching for an illegal abortion, Meriem was hardly alone. Morocco legalized contraception in the 1960s. Free condoms are available in public hospitals, emergency contraception retails in pharmacies, and abortions are legal if pregnancy threatens a mother’s health, and also in cases of rape or severe birth defects.
Education on contraception targets married people, though, and this represents a larger taboo in Moroccan society: here, premarital sexual intercourse is illegal and heavily stigmatized, according to France’s 2006 Emergency Contraception in Africa survey. While society considers premarital sex necessary to prove male virility and adulthood, 90 percent of women surveyed considered premarital virginity a “social duty.” Most men refused to marry a non-virgin, one likening women’s premarital sexual behavior to prostitution.
Nevertheless, many women begin sexual relationships. In a 2006 L’Economiste study, 34 percent of women surveyed reported sexual activity before marriage.
Unmarried women discovered as sexually active are shamed, and, if pregnant, can face ostracism and abuse. Perhaps consequently, levels of illegal abortion are high—between 130,000 and 150,000 procedures happen each year, according to a 2003 USAID study.
If contraception is readily available, why are there so many illegal abortions?
Ignorance regarding sex strongly influences unprotected behavior. The ECAF survey found unmarried women often began sexual activity without contraception, as reproduction was only briefly discussed in schools and overlooked in families.
In schools, many teachers refuse to teach sexuality-related topics to pupils younger than 15 years old. Some Muslim authorities dismiss premarital sexual education for single people, as clerics believe it encourages activity.
Though the Ministry of National Education recently signed a bill to promote reproductive education in public schools, it is unclear whether this measure covers premarital sex.
It also fails recent graduates, who enter university unprepared for sexual culture.
Students from some universities are able to easily avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections by accessing emergency contraception on campus and buying condoms in town.
However, like other Moroccan youth, they have little sexual education. Current sex education centers on the biomedical model, which introduces diseases, cures and prevention while largely overlooking psychosocial aspects of sexual behavior, like respect, which have a greater effect on student decision-making.
Dr. Jallal Toufiq, a psychiatrist and director of Salé’s Arrazi Hospital, believes students’ ignorance also comes from cultural silence.“This is a conservative society, and (students are) not educated (to) talk about their sexual lives… very easily,” said Toufiq.
New male students, says Mohammed, a former student, expect university to mirror an American Pie movie. They pursue numerous encounters, sometimes oblivious to safe practices.
When asked what consequences single, pregnant students face, Mohammed indicates psychological burdens stemming from religion.
“Religiously talking, it’s forbidden to have premarital sex,” said Mohammed. “It’s seen as something evil… like she did the worst crime in humanity.”
Toufiq recalls a student who, to avoid parents’ involvement in her pregnancy, went on academic exchange and later left university.
Simo, a male student, says most of his friends have impregnated women and that, frequently, they abort due to familial shame.
“Morocco is (a) very conservative society,” said Simo. “The woman’s) family will feel shame… I would feel merciful for her, because people are worms… the way they’re going to treat her.”
In addition to pregnancy and transmission of disease, ignorance can lead to risky situations. Mohammed recalls an overnight trip with a co-ed student group, where, despite sex-segregated sleeping arrangements, a man attempted to coerce a woman into having sex. Mohammed returned to campus with the women, rather than stay with the alleged offender. Unfortunately, he described sexual coercion as common among young men.
“’I’ll be insistent until you fall down and do whatever,’” said Mohammed, characterizing how he believes young men approach sexual encounters.
According to Glorianna Pionati, a school counselor and professor, students have reported Rohypnol, a popular sexual assault drug, as common in town. According to Pionati, young female students are especially susceptible to sexual violence due to a lack of education.
Simo believes freshman-level sexual education can decrease risk-taking and increase knowledge about consent.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in order to create an effective sexual education course, high schools must focus on reducing behaviors that cause unwanted pregnancy and STIs. This can occur by reinforcing a clear stance on unprotected sex and adapting material to students’ cultures. Effective programs, according to the CDC, last 14 or more hours and work best in small groups.
If Moroccan universities tailor an effective course, they may help students avoid sexual issues. School administrator Abdelhamid Lotfi believes this is possible. He stresses that a well-designed course should include a cross-section of society, Islamic teachings and universal human rights.
“Sexual education… has to go along with what’s taking place in the social environment,” said Lotfi.
In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development declared access to health-care services and education as fundamental human rights. To help students realize their rights, Moroccan universities must focus on sexual education so students are informed regarding issues of consent, diseases, and unwanted pregnancy.
*Students were given anonymity due to this topics’ social stigma.
Ida Sophie Winter is an undergraduate student of journalism at the University of Missouri. During the 2014-15 academic year, she attended Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane as a Boren Scholar.