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About the Author

Tiziana Cauli
Journalist (London, UK)

I am a London-based Italian journalist currently covering the property market in Europe, but with a strong background and interest in development issues. I graduated in a post-degree school of journalism in Milan (Italy) and hold a Ph.D. in African Studies. I worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, France and Spain and am fluent in Italian, English, Spanish and French.


Tackling women’s health in a Moroccan city

Published 31st May 2010 - 11 comments - 6683 views -

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 ( 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.  







  • Aija Vanaga on 31st May 2010:

    There are huge difficulties in a lot of communities and all around the world about female perception about themselves and their safety exactly towards sexual issues.

  • Marion G. on 31st May 2010:

    Where does the organization get their funding from? It´s always refreshing to hear stories about smaller and dedicated grassroots initiatives trying to make a change in these communities. Thanks for sharing!

  • Tiziana Cauli on 31st May 2010:

    @Aija: yes, it’s a very sensitive issue and you have to be very careful not to scare women away, which happens quite often unfortunately.

    @Marion: they mainly work in partnership with other organizations who provide staff and some financial support. They also receive private and public donations. But I guess they would need much more.

  • Aija Vanaga on 31st May 2010:

    It is not even about to scare away, it is more about that these issues are something not accepted at all.

  • Hanna Clarys on 31st May 2010:

    Hi Tiziana, I totally know how you felt sitting in that café! When I was in Fez a few months ago, all the men sitting there stared at me, wondering what a girl was doing there, drinking tea! You could see them think. I felt as if I was doing something wrong. I didn’t expect that in Fez, which is quite a touristic city right now.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 01st June 2010:

    hi Tiziana,

    Very graphic description of that thing about being careful about sitting in the cafe!” I can’t imagine that here in my country, the Philippines although we still have a long way to go to really achieving gender equality here.

    Nonetheless, the issue of women’s health here remains a sensitive issue, too. This is largely because of the country being pre-dominantly Catholic.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 01st June 2010:

    @Aija: I think the way you approach women in certain communities is crucial in this sense. Some development workers have been able to break untouchable taboos by tackling the right issues in the right way. Sometimes women (and their male partners) are simply not informed on sexual and health related issues.

    @Hanna: Wow! I’ve never been to Fez or Marrakech but I thought it would be different there. In Oujda I found a couple of places where I didn’t feel out of place (yeah, like I was doing something wrong), but in Nador I ended up getting a coffee (a very bad one)in a US fast-food and another one in a hotel bar. I can’t go without coffee for too long smile It’s different if you go eat though. Women do go to restaurants and pastry places by themselves, did you notice?

  • Tiziana Cauli on 01st June 2010:

    @Iris: good point, thanks for mentioning it. I think religion is often used to deprive women (and men, sometimes) of their basic rights. Catholicism has very bad records jus as Islam in this sense. I come from Italy and - although my home country is not a developing one - women’s freedom of choice when it comes to health related issues such as contraception, artificial insemination and abortion is still very limited by governments (regardeless of their colour) and laws, due to very heavy influences from the Church.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 01st June 2010:

    Tiziana, great post! Thank you.

    It’s a great project, and I especially like the economic independence it can bring to women. Money is power after all.

    As for contraception, I believe men should be educated too. There’s not much good from a condom if a male refuses to put it on. Given all the stereotypes and masculinity issues, even if women break their barriers, men have to do it too.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 01st June 2010:

    Thank you for your comment Giedre. Yes, I agree, educating men is also crucial. I heard very disturbing stories - although not referring to this particular project in Morocco - about men taking the pill instead of women as nobody had explained to them how it worked, or condoms being used in the most creative and unbelievable ways (including women wearing them on their fingers) in places where fertility is still culturally linked to superstition.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 01st June 2010:

    Yes Tiziana,

    The Church can be very repressive. I totally agree.

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