In marine terminology, a berth is a space in a harbor where a ship can dock safely. Marsa is the Arabic translation of the word, and its literal sense suits the sexual health center well.
Operating since 2011 in a building that neighbors Haigazian University, Marsa provides numerous sexual health services in a purely confidential environment, retaining the client’s anonymity throughout their stay at the clinic.
As stated on its website, the NGO offers services free of charge or at subsidized prices, ranging from rapid testing for HIV to medical consultations to psychological and psychosexual counseling. Should the need arise, the center often refers its clients to the appropriate service providers.
The center operates in an environment that usually surrounds sexual activities with stigma and discrimination. Though today’s society is still not completely open about the subject, manager Diana Abou Abbas believes it is indispensable to inform people about sexual health in order to allow them to make educated decisions regarding sex in general.
“There’s need for a place where people can safely discuss their sexual activities. First of all, they should be able to say that they have intercourse regardless of their marital status, with either or both men and women. It’s no one’s place to judge,” said the manager. “It’s our right to have access to sexual health services.”
To make all of that possible, Abou Abbas thinks building trust between Marsa and its clients is essential. The manager hopes that more than five years of experience, a Red Ribbon Award and the fact that the clinic only asks for the client’s date of birth are making that easier to achieve.
“We earn a client’s trust by communicating with them and encouraging them to visit us. We provide them with any information they might need to know,” Abou Abbas said. “But it’s also about the team; how a client is greeted by the receptionist once they step through the door, and later on when they are talking to the doctors.”
Marsa’s efforts outside the clinic aim to raise awareness on sexual health and make it more accessible to the public. During events like La Fête de la Musique or on days like Valentine’s Day, Marsa personnel distribute free condoms (more than 21,000 so far) and informative brochures to passersby in an attempt to introduce people to Marsa and promote safer sex.
They go a step further by using different media to further grow their outreach. In one of their three videos on Facebook and YouTube, a young girl named Leila discovers what a period is and what it feels like to be on it. Instead of going into the medical aspect of the subject, the video focuses on society and stigma by comically portraying the distant aunt’s advice and the shop clerk’s reaction. A short sentence at the end of the video, as well as the end of the other two, clearly and simply states the message each one of them is trying to communicate. Marsa therefore tries to normalize the subjects and state that it is indeed as simple as it seems.
Yet Marsa pays just as much attention to the medical aspect of it all; it is all interconnected. The NGO offers sexual health awareness sessions (e.g. presentations on different STIs, and condom demonstrations) outside the clinic. Though they never ask for a client’s name, they are able to conduct research by gathering data and specifying patterns that can both help them lobby for the advancement of sexual healthcare in Lebanon and provide statistics that would otherwise be unavailable. Marsa is currently working alongside certain universities on developing a sexual health education course that the NGO hopes will eventually see light.
The center’s trans* (an umbrella term referring to identities within the gender identity spectrum) campaign is an example of how they approach their projects. On a web page dedicated to trans* individuals, Marsa discusses the medical, legal and social aspect of being trans* in Lebanon. In this project, and many others, Marsa starts off by providing people with the most basic information regarding the subject. One of their FAQs is a simple one: Is it legal to be trans* in Lebanon? The answer is an even simpler yes.
For people like Sara Abu Zaki, project coordinator, the efforts done by Marsa are being felt on a daily basis.
“We’re seeing the impact of our work first hand. The change. There’s a lot to be done, but we have the potential to do it,” said Abu Zaki. “We can see our path and we’re on it. It’s an important one.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the general response Marsa has been receiving is a positive one. With the average number of monthly clients increasing from thirty people in 2011 to 250 in 2016, the NGO’s impact has been expanding. The future of the center is hopeful.
“I realized it was very important to get checked up, but was afraid at first because of the stigma related to STDs,” stated a client who wishes to maintain anonymity. “Marsa turned out to be a shame-free place.”