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Christina Fakhry 21 Jan 2016

Psycho-sexual Health In Lebanon: Marsa Eyes The Future

In a country where sex education falls short on the priority scale and the rates of HIV/AIDS infection are on the rise, community based sexual health center Marsa has taken it upon itself to bridge the gap between society and medicine in regards to psychosexual health.

Launched in March 2011, the center provides professional healthcare services to sexually active individuals in Lebanon, regardless of their gender, age, and sexual orientation, with a focus on youth and underprivileged populations.

“Sexual health services are provided by trained professionals in a friendly environment that is free of stigma and discrimination. All services are private and confidential,” said manager of Marsa Diana Abou Abbas to Beirut.com.

Available services include testing for sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and syphilis against a small fee; and pap smears at subsidized prices for women. “Medical consultations are also offered for the diagnosis and screening of other STIs such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, in addition to free counseling sessions,” Abou Abbas noted.

Psychological support is of primary importance for people living with STIs (chronic STIs in particular) and can equally benefit their partners and/or family members. “The counselor helps individuals accept and cope with the fact that they are now living with an STI, maintain their self-esteem and self-worth, and plan for their future,” Abou Abbas explained.

“People living with HIV (PLHIV) in Lebanon suffer primarily from the stigma and discrimination associated with living with a chronic STI. Many PLHIV cannot come out openly to their friends or family with their positive HIV status for fear of being ostracized while others maintain their status for fear of being fired from their jobs,” she added.

In 2014, Marsa Sexual Health Center received the Red Ribbon Award for prevention of sexual transmission of HIV from the UNAIDS at the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia and continues to focus its efforts on different aspects of sexual health and education in Lebanon today. “Lebanon is behind on its sexual health education. The school and university curricula need to be inclusive of this type of education on both biological and psychosocial levels,” Abou Abbas told Beirut.com.

“Unfortunately, much of the youth in Lebanon get their sexual education from porn which is inaccurate, condom-less, and does not take consensual interaction and open communication into consideration, while others resort to the internet where many of the resources are not scientifically accurate,” she said.

To raise awareness about such issues, Marsa organizes street outreach campaigns targeting young people regularly in areas like Hamra, Gemmeyze, Mar Mikhael, and Badaro. “People have become accustomed to our outreach campaigns and have come to expect them around the end of year holidays or on special days such as International Music Day or World AIDS Day,” Abou Abbas noted.

In addition to field work, the center has been using social media to promote women’s health. Following its Look at Yourself, Look after Yourself campaign in 2014, the NGO released a cunning short video on first menstruation among girls entitled Leila The Spy in 2015. An animated video on transgender health featuring simplified explanations of the concepts of sex and gender is also expected to be out this year.

Marsa ultimately plans to expand the scope of its work when it comes to the promotion of sexual health awareness and the prevention of STIs. “Our services have been highly appreciated by our clients and their circles of contacts as they find there is a lack of access to this information and much discrimination associated with sexual practices outside the scope of marriage,” Abou Abbas explained.

“The Marsa mobile app will be launched soon, allowing clients to access their medical calendars on their smart phones with all the necessary reminders about appointments, tests and vaccinations,” she concluded.

To learn more about Marsa’s activities and services, you can visit their Facebook page.