Although female condoms have been in the global market for almost 15 years, the product is still unknown to many women.
At the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Demark (16-19 May), Denise Van Dijk, director of global market development at The Female Health Company, called for men to be ambassadors of the female condom as a key strategy to popularise the product and to stop the notion that female condoms are a woman's thing.
She said: "This strategy seeks to inform men they are equal partners in negotiating for safer sex as opposed to the traditional theory that it's the woman's duty to negotiate."
Inadequate promotion of female condoms
Female condoms have had very slow growth over the last 15 years and some health promoters believe this is due to inadequate promotion. In Malawi for instance, female condoms are expiring at the Mitundu Community Hospital in Lilongwe because women prefer the male condom according to health worker Linvell Iddes. The women, she said, argue that the male condom is user-friendly and has no stigma attached to it. Iddes further said: "Due to insufficient promotion, there is a lot of stigma attached to the female condom; people think women who use them are promiscuous."
Iddes reiterated the need for more intensified teaching on the importance of proper use of female condoms since many women claim it's embarrassing to use it, while others say their partners dislike it. Unlike the male condom that is used only once, the female condom can be used for several hours if the woman retains it in her body. There is however a danger if the female condom is reused since it can cause a urinary tract infection.
The Female Health Company has distributed only 120 million female condoms worldwide compared to the 50 billion male condoms distributed. Van Dijk believes that men who support their sex partners in using the female condom are better placed to be ambassadors and provide more promotion. She said: "It's a shame that the condoms would expire because people don't go for them." She further noted that is more reason campaigns and sensitisation trainings should target men. "This will make the men realise that male and female condoms are equally effective measures in HIV and other sexually transmitted infection prevention," she said, "as well as good family planning methods."
Education on female condoms is critical
Jacob Muumeng'u, a male sex worker living with HIV in Nairobi Kenya received training on the importance of supporting his sexual partners by promoting female condoms from HOPE Worldwide Kenya and embraced it. He now goes for the female condoms from Kenyatta National Hospital as a way of promoting the product. He said: "My clients are mainly married women and I know it's difficult for them to go and the condoms themselves for fear of stigma, so I take it upon myself to get the condoms for our protection."
Although women account for 58 per cent of the total number of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa according to UNAIDS, most are still captives of stereotype and lack confidence to get female condoms as a contraceptive as well as an HIV prevention measure.
Van Dijk believes education is critical in creating female condom awareness. The Female Health Company has embarked on training men and women collectively in 144 countries. The condom manufacturing company gives its profit to facilitate in campaigns on the proper use of female condoms. She said: "The profit that the company gets goes back to facilitate sensitisation campaigns and trainings and it's indeed a worthy course."
Anisia Karanja, an HIV activist living with HIV for over 20 years and a promoter of female condoms, said: "Above other things, the female condom was introduced as a way of empowering women to be in control of their sex relationships and to participate fully in family planning, as well as HIV and STI prevention."
Yet much work is still needed to ensure the female condom fulfills its potential to empower women. Kenya is another country where the female condom remains unpopular, according to a source (who wanted to remain anonymous) from Kenya's National AIDS & STI Control Programme (NASCOP).
NASCOP annually distributes 180 million male condoms while they distribute only three million female condoms. A worker in the procurement department said: "We do not order for more than that because the growth is slow and most women have not embraced them." He stressed that more training is required to promote the female condom and detach it from stigma.