Despite having been available for years, and its near endless list of benefits, the female condom has not had the level of popularity or success that global health and women’s rights advocates have hoped for. For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with the female condom, it’s an enjoyable little device that women can initiate on their own and that protects both partners while maintaining a warmer and more natural sensation than the male condom.
The female condom is a sheath of clear flexible material (latex, nitrile, or polyurethane) that can be inserted up to several hours before the sexual act, avoiding its interruption. Its outer ring provides an additional level of protection against sexually transmitted infections, and men have repeatedly stated how great the sensation of the inner ring feels during sex. If taught correctly, women can better negotiate condom use with stubborn husbands and partners, taking greater control over their sexuality and reproduction. It can also play a significant role in keeping sex workers safe and healthy as they can use the female condom as an alternative to inserting a sponge during their periods in order to maintain their work schedule – behaviour seen throughout Latin America.
So why hasn’t the female condom become more popular? Many argue that one of the female condom’s barriers to success is its price. Unfortunately, there isn’t yet enough competition on the market to drive the price down. Currently there are two World Health Organisation pre approved models on the market: Cupid Limited’s Cupid Condom (with a small sponge inside) and the Female Health Company’s FC2 (with a small flexible inner ring). Each are several times more expensive than male condoms. Yet several studies have shown that creating access to the female condom leads to higher levels of safe sex, lower HIV/AIDS transmission, and prevents many unwanted pregnancies, saving governments hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of their initial investment. Others state that the female condom has design drawbacks such as the visible outer ring that makes some women self-conscious. The stereotype that the female condom is noisy (an issue that has been eliminated thanks to design changes) may also be keeping people from giving it a shot.
I would maintain that these characteristics don’t have the impact that some argue, but that instead the female condom’s biggest hurdle is society’s refusal to allow women a greater role in their sexuality and reproduction. Just as the sexual needs and pleasure of women come second, so do the tools and contraceptive methods that put them in control. However, there are ways around this.
In Chile, like in many other countries, the female condom is not yet available. Thus the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW Chile) has decided to lead a strategic campaign to create dual access to the female condom through the National Health System and market vendors, as well as generating acceptance and demand for the product.
ICW Chile will reach out to young men and women, hoping to prevent HIV in the next generation of adults and encouraging young women to take control from the beginning of their sex lives. They will reach out to sex workers through condom negotiation workshops and teach the health benefits of using the condom during their period. They will speak to married couples in regions where HIV rates are high, and teach men that the female condom feels fantastic and that it gives them one less responsibility to worry about. ICW Chile will also work with transgender men and women, HIV positive women, and young mothers to attempt to mainstream the topic and receive thousands of signatures, eventually presenting a master petition to the government and encouraging the purchase of female condoms for the National HIV/AIDS and STD Prevention Program.
The hope is that this strategic introduction of the female condom will outweigh latent machismo in Chile and will give women an opportunity to protect themselves, especially from transmission of HIV/AIDS in their marriage. By 2015, ICW Chile hopes to have convinced the Chilean Government of the importance of the female condom. Soon Chile will be one less country where women are simply dependent on the generosity of men to put on a male condom.
Carolynn Poulsen is the Program Manager at ICW Chile.
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