Finding a café where you can sit down and have breakfast is not difficult in a big city like Oujda, eastern Morocco, barely 15 kilometers away from Algeria. It took me a while, though, to find a place where I would feel comfortable sitting at a table and ordering coffee. The reason? Although streets were packed with women, none of them would venture into a café or a restaurant.
The previous night, I had had a chat with Flavia Nigri, a young Italian woman who runs a project for the access to basic health services in the city suburbs. She had told me about how difficult it was to address sexual issues with women in Oujda’s poor communities. You had to be careful about the words you used, the attitude you displayed, the taboos you were infringing. Contraception was one of them.
Flavia’s project (http://santepourtousoujda.wordpress.com/ for those who read French) addresses this issue in a place where high birth rates add to women’s heavy burden in disadvantaged households. Not an easy job, I thought, and I was even more convinced of this after my first impact with Oujda. I thought if I were born and lived there, I would never buy condoms in the pharmacy near my house, nor ask for a pill prescription to my doctor, as my family and neighbors would know it straight away.
So how do you win women’s trust to the extent that they would listen to you as you tackle topics such as family planning and safe sex in a place like this?
“We rely on a person from here, who is very involved in the communities, so people respect him and he brings them here,” said Ester Meloni, a colleague of Flavia who manages a project on sexual and reproductive health.
Flavia and Ester work with Italian NGO Ricerca e Cooperazione (RC) – or Research and Cooperation. Their projects provide free medical assistance to women who would never even dare or could not afford going to a private clinic for issues related to their sexual health. In Oujda's province, 300 pregnant women out of 100,000 die before they can give birth, mainly due to complications related to premature child birth and unsafe abortions. On the other hand, public services remain insufficient, as a mere 4.5 per cent of the country's GDP is spent on health.
In RC’s center in Oujda’s medina women can find all they need, including counseling and medical care. The organization works in partnership with a Moroccan counterpart, called Association Marocaine de Planification Familiale (AMPF). Its personnel includes local doctors and nurses and it even has two ecography machines, one of which was donated by an Italian hospital.
Tackling women’s health in poor communities, though, goes beyond ensuring them access to medical care. Financial emancipation is also crucial to make them independent from men, able to address their children’s needs as well as their own and keep them away from activities such as prostitution.
This is what Ester thought when she kicked-started another project in September last year. Since then, right next to the ecography room, a group of local young women have been busy cutting and sewing pieces of beautiful Moroccan fabric into stylish bags and purses.
Ester said she came up with this idea after a trip to Rabat, where she bought a purse in a fancy shop. She paid 40 euros for it, which was quite pricey if compared to local standards. “But it would have cost three times as much in Rome, so I bought it,” said Ester, who thought many other women would purchase such beautiful bags, especially if they were a bit less expensive.
Women working in the project with the help of two sewing machines (one of which was donated to the organization) have produced hundreds of bags, which were sold for a price of 20 to 30 euros each.
There is even a catalogue, with shots of a very charming model posing in a terrace upstairs from the NGO premises. She used to be a nurse there, but she recently left. Ester said it’s difficult to keep the personnel, who seek higher payment and more prestigious positions.
Judging from the nurse’s smile in the pictures though, helping women reach emancipation and access health in a place like Oujda is a rewarding experience.