By Diana Sharkey
In Gueliz, a trendy neighborhood in Marrakech, young people walk the streets, laughing and carrying on. Women do not grace the street without carrying the gaze of many men. A group of black women walk past a large Starbucks: the four of them are wearing skin-tight clothes, and approach an older white man who had taken a seat against the store’s windows only a few minutes prior, facing out towards the walkway. One by one they exchange two kisses on each of his cheeks, banter in French, laugh, and saunter away waving a cellphone, implying a “call me later”.
Of many coffee shops throughout the country, this particular Starbucks is a known pick-up spot for prostitutes. It is large and centrally located in the Gueliz neighborhood, where nightlife reigns not far from gaudy tourist resorts, and where interactions such as these illustrate how sex work operates quite freely.
A local who works at a small cafe in Jemaa el Fna, the main market square of Marrakech, confirms that prostitutes do work in the city. “Everyone knows that it goes on,” says Maxine Rich from Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit against violent extremism.
Amendments to Morocco’s penal code in 2003 criminalized sex tourism, sexual abuse, trafficking in persons, and child pornography, but really exposed a Pandora’s box that was long open. Over a decade later in the United States’ most recent Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), Morocco remains in the Tier 2 classification because of its failure to meet the minimum standards set forth by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Ongoing reports conducted by both the U.S. Department of State and the Moroccan government reveal that sex work, as well as sex trafficking, is still a deeply-ingrained issue in Morocco. Moroccan women, men, and children are trafficked throughout Europe and the Middle East for sexual exploitation (2014 TIP Report). Women and girls, as young as six years old, are among the most common groups trafficked to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Syria, and throughout the European continent (2014 TIP Report).
Now, in 2018, Moroccan women are being sold for lump sums of cash to work as maids in Saudi households over Twitter.
Morocco has earned a reputation for sex trafficking within the region, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia. A Deutsche Welle article published this year detailed a post-2011 influx of Moroccans, mostly entering domestic work, caused outrage among Saudi women due to fears that Moroccan women would seduce their husbands. Within the region, the Moroccan woman bears much of the burden of the hypersexualization of the Arab woman as a relatively Westernized country. Their fetishization and eroticization leads to the belief that they are sexually promiscuous. This conceptualization influences the way Moroccan and other regional societies view victims of sexual abuse, tending to shift the blame.
This reputation is partly why Morocco is not only a source of sex work but also a destination for sex tourism. While it may not be common knowledge amongst global citizens, a notable subset of the population, including foreigners and Moroccan men, are all too aware of Morocco’s “dark secrets.” Morocco’s underground industry is quite popular with men from the Persian Gulf. Foreigners, primarily from France and Spain, also make the discreet journey to the neighboring continent lured by the availability of child sex tourism (2016 TIP Report).
Aside from attracting beneficiaries of the trade, Morocco is also a place to engage on the other end of sex work. Unaccompanied women and children entering from Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal, Nigeria, and Cameroon are particularly vulnerable to trafficking networks that force women into prostitution. Suspected Cameroonian and Nigerian networks facilitate this trade by threatening victims and their families, most often those from their own country (2016 TIP). On the southern border, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are coerced into prostitution and criminal networks forcing undocumented women into prostitution operate along the eastern Algerian border in Oujda and in the northern coastal town of Nador (2016 TIP). When women recruited for work arrive in the country, they may become victims of forced labor where employers refuse to pay wages, withhold passports, and physically abuse them (2016 TIP).
In addition to the exploitation of migrants, young Moroccan women, recruited from rural areas for domestic work in the cities, subsequently become victims of forced labor in the home, and are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse (TIP 2016, Al Jazeera 2013). Nestled near the foot of the Atlas Mountains, along the palm-tree studded Atlantic coastline, is the beautiful Agadir, a city where exploitation is prevalent. M’hamed El Kadi, the International Rescue Committee Manager from Peace Corps Morocco, explained, “Women actually go from different parts of the country to work there, and it’s mainly seasonal. And when [the agricultural season] is over, they make other practices… just to survive…sex practices…and that’s why also it’s a tourist resort. Agadir is a tourist resort, that’s why the rates in Agadir are very high.” Elsewhere throughout the country, one can easily find prostitutes in the discos, bars, clubs, and certain large gardens in the major cities where people can engage in these illegal transactions.
Morocco is ranked number 139 out of 145 countries in the 2015 Global Gender Gap Report. Thus, women with limited educational and economic opportunities are lured by offers of work and promises of making enough money for their families. High percentages of sex workers are divorced women, who married at a very early age, and are left marginalized. Risky behavior for the sake of the family follows suit. A 2015 study conducted by the Moroccan government discovered that some women are even forced into prostitution by members of their own families. Whether Moroccan-born or immigrant, engagement in sex work is not a choice.
Morocco’s classification under Tier 2 means that the country has acknowledged that its current approach to eliminate trafficking is substandard and is making “significant efforts” to improve these standards. However, within the legal system, gaps allow pimps, prostitution dealers, and network masterminds to operate throughout the country. Moroccan law regarding trafficking is vague enough that not all forms of trafficking are prohibited. The general nature of the law clusters together human trafficking, human smuggling, and illegal migration, meaning anyone involved in these activities is liable. In this sense, blame could fall on trafficking victims just as easily as it would on the perpetrators who orchestrate and financially benefit from the trade.
In addition, the Moroccan government is putting in minimal effort to investigate potential crimes under existing laws. When the government did conduct investigations, details regarding the the busts were not made public. In 2014, the Moroccan government reportedly disbanded 105 human smuggling and trafficking networks. In 2015, the government reported 34 cases involving the abduction and illegal confinement of children. However, the 2016 TIP report stated that it was unclear what the outcomes for the cases were and whether the alleged suspects or criminal groups were actually charged. Failure to follow through with these big busts continues into recent years. In 2017, 112 trafficking and migrant smuggling networks were dismantled, in addition to 29 “masterminds”, 66 smugglers, and 12 accomplices involved in 33 different trafficking-related criminal networks back in 2016. Yet the Moroccan government did not release details on the status of either of these investigations.
Despite the significant presence of sex work in Morocco, premarital sex is illegal and stigmatized. As a consequence, women cannot carry condoms, which are seen as a sign of illegal activity during police round ups of usual hotspots. A female sex worker has trouble reconciling her own sexual health, through basic protection from STDs and pregnancy, over the fear of being arrested. The topic itself is taboo. Women forced into sex work need to lay low beneath the law. Anything they do must be done covertly. Dr. Taha Brahni, the Hepatitis C Project Manager at Association de Lutte Contre le SIDA (ALCS), said, “The problem here in Morocco [is] that the vulnerable people…cannot [speak] out. They cannot say, ‘I’m a sex worker.’ As sex workers, they would be marginalized, discriminated against, stigmatized.”
Thankfully, organizations like ALCS provide necessary services that many sex workers are often denied. ALCS is the most prominent organization fighting AIDS in Morocco. They work with vulnerable populations, including men who have sex with men, migrants in the North, and sex workers, to combat and prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmissible diseases. Brahni explained, “Every day we have a special kind of people who come here. Today is Thursday, it’s the day for sex workers, female sex workers. Tomorrow is the day for men who have sex with men.” Programme PPF, run by Dr. Azza Ezzouhra, is a prevention program specifically for female sex workers.
ALCS runs various programs in a number of key locations throughout the country, spreading awareness about HIV, educating the population, administering STD testing through mobile clinics, and providing clinical consultations by volunteer medical professionals. Medicine is even given out for free.
Although the Ministry of Health provides the antiretrovirals for HIV treatment it does not provide the necessary supplemental services. ALCS distributes the medicines and provides free therapy. They even provide food, assist in the job-hunting process, and pay for patients’ children to attend school. Brahni explained, “The people that come here, they say that ‘When we cross that door, we feel that we are not in Morocco. We can speak freely, and we can feel comfortable.’” Where their government falls short, the Moroccan people can find support at organizations like ALCS.
Because various forms of trafficking, smuggling, and illegal immigration are conflated together, vulnerable people–Moroccan and migrants alike–are lumped into the second-class citizen category. Rather than protecting them, laws and cultural norms criminalize them. Because Morocco does not offer government-facilitated assistance to trafficking victims, foreign embassies and civil society organizations wind up being the primary providers of protection services for victims.
In recent years, Morocco has implemented some new legislation that could potentially help victims of trafficking. A February 2018 law, No. 103-13, specifically combats violence against women. And while the anti-trafficking law is not comprehensive according to Human Rights Watch based in New York, it is an important first step in the right direction. The next step is to fill in the gaps, round it out to make it inclusive, and provide enough detail to make it workable. The law needs to be strong enough to prosecute trafficking perpetrators and put a stop to prostitution rings of trafficked peoples. The victims of trafficking themselves need to be decriminalized in a victim-centered approach. Those working in the sex trade as informal victims of a system inherently hindering their socioeconomic status and consequently, human dignity, need to be recognized by the state. NGOs cannot be the only providers. Women need access to the economic opportunities that allows them to thrive in an increasingly modernizing country.
In the words of Dr. Brahni, “…Sex workers, they need help, especially social help. Because many of them… become sex workers just to help their families.”
Diana Sharkey is a senior in Pierson College. You can contact her at email@example.com.