BEIRUT: Marsa is breaking the sexual health stigma in Lebanon.
Legal, social and cultural frameworks, oftentimes ‘male-centric’ govern one’s body in Lebanon, limiting and shaming access to sexual health services in and outside the capital. Sexual health becomes “a right that we have to fight for,” said Rima Majed from the Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies Department at the American University of Beirut in a discussion held at AUB with Marsa sexual health center, on the 10th of March, in light of Women’s Week.
“Sexual health services are frowned upon and refrained from access to, with little available necessary skill-set more so outside Beirut,” said Sara Abu Zaki, the project coordinator at Marsa.
The taboo persists and the stigma reigns. In a Lebanese household, mothers will likely not talk to their daughters about safe sex. In schools, sex education starts in late-teen years but the content is limited and censored, “and never really comprehensive,” said Rana Aaraj, a sexual health educator at Marsa. In clinics, family doctors will most likely not remind their patients, especially unmarried, to be tested for STI or STDs.
“The chances are high for HPV infections to progress into cervical cancer,” said Zaki. Cervical cancer is not as prominent in the national conversation as other forms of cancer are. “it is a problem because people only associate penetrative sex to increase the risk of STIs and STDs, but different sexual practices (penetrative or not) are exposed too,” added Aaraj.
Other assumptions stemming from lack of communication between the partners, is that pleasure is male-centered and contraception is “the man’s responsibility,” which entails imbalance in the power dynamics of the couple. Marsa’s statistics from their patients reported that only 21 percent use condoms regularly and 79 percent don’t.
Marsa Sexual Health Center opened its doors in 2011 and is located in Tayouneh, Badaro. The NGO provides free of charge HIV Testing, Hepatitis B & C Testing, and condoms. At subsidized prices, Marsa provides in-house medical consultations, such as pap smears, psychological and social counseling. Aside from going over sexual history and practices with patients and partners, therapists and educators help HIV and sexual abuse survivors cope with their bodies and society, in counseling sessions.
The center welcomes Lebanese and non-Lebanese gender non-conforming, straight, queer and LGBTQ individuals. From their own statistics, Marsa noted that “homosexual men are the first to be proactive about their sexual health but homosexual women constitute the smallest portion of their beneficiaries,” said Abu Zaki.
On the educational front, sexual educators from Marsa give sex education sessions in schools, universities, youth movements and in refugee camps, “in some cases, there is still a traditional prevalent culture of censorship,” said Aaraj. The center also welcomes medical residents who want to specialize in sexual health to assist Marsa’s trusted and non-judgmental practitioners with their patients.
“I have to drive to a pharmacy outside town to get pills or Plan B contraception. I was oftentimes rejected when asking for help, as most pharmacists tend to be close-minded and conservative. How can Marsa help me in this case?” asked a concerned student audience member. “We are more than happy to refer people to a tolerating and friendly pharmacy that we are in touch with,” said Abu Zaki.
Most attendees expressed the necessity for the Ministry of Health and Office of Mental Health to fund public campaigns and provide healthcare around STI and STDs, which are also inclusive of the LGBTQ community.
Marsa Sexual Health Center receives donations and project-based funding from organizations in Europe; in Germany, France, and Switzerland. Marsa has also collaborated and received support from the Ministry of Health with the distribution of HIV kits, for example.
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