Healy Thompson is a policy analyst and outreach coordinator for the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE).
I have spent a lot of time these last couple of months working with my colleagues at the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and with advocates, researchers, and people living with HIV around the world on the launch of a new campaign to dramatically increase access to the female condom.
During this time, I found myself mentioning the female condom and the campaign (Prevention Now! www.preventionnow.net) to my friends on more than one occasion. These well-meaning and pretty well-informed, progressive people (many of them global health activists) couldn’t figure out why I would be spending so much time on this campaign. Their confusion was expressed in comments like this:
- “I don’t know why anyone would wear a female condom when they could just use a male condom.”
- “Female condoms are noisy and no one likes them.”
- “It’s not like a female condom solves the problem of negotiating condom use with your partner.”
Misconceptions, myths, misinformation, and skepticism (I ran out of “m” words) persist not just with my friends but with many without much exposure to effective female condom programs. Yet, Beatrice Were, a Ugandan HIV/AIDS advocates and the 2005 recipient of the Human Rights Watch Award has said this about the female condom: "HIV/AIDS is becoming a women’s pandemic…They need the only tool for HIV prevention that women can initiate." Why does she have hope in female condoms?
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Once you take a moment to actually learn about the female condom, you can see why advocates for sexual and reproductive health, HIV prevention, and/or family planning are rallying behind efforts to expand access to the female condom. And then when you read the new studies about the acceptability of the female condom among users and about the cost-effectiveness of investments in the female condom, it’s a no-brainer!
The female condom provides an option in addition to the male condom that makes negotiating safer sex possible for many women for whom it would not otherwise be. Female condoms can reduce the rate of HIV transmission among women having sex with an infected male partner by more than 90 percent; are at least as effective in reducing other sexually transmitted infections as are male condoms; and can be used to avoid unintended pregnancy. (A quick aside—I’m talking about the advantages of female condoms for women who have sex with men, but the product we know as the female condom is also used by many men who have sex with men; in the interest of brevity and focus, I’ll leave it to another blogger to expand on that topic.)
My friends were all missing some basic information about the female condom. So I found myself going through my facts about the female condom shpiel with friend after friend, each time ending up with another die-hard advocate for the female condom.
While my friends were right that the female condom won’t eliminate the need for negotiation in many sexual relationships, the dynamic in those relationships changes significantly when a woman is able to say to her partner, “If you don’t want to wear yours, I can wear mine.” Female condoms can be inserted independently, hours before sex, and they are made out of polyurethane instead of latex (which means people with latex allergies can use them, they’re more durable and heat resistant than latex condoms, and they transmit body warmth better than latex, which can make sex with a condom more enjoyable). And one of the most impressive things about the female condom is that studies have shown that when female condoms are delivered with effective programs, female condom use leads to higher usage rates for both male and female condoms.
It’s clear that expanding prevention options and increasing access to female condoms is critical in the fight against HIV/AIDS, yet in 2005 there was only one female condom distributed for every 100 women between ages 15 and 49.
So, how do we get universal access to the female condom? We get universal access to the female condom by:
- Delivering compelling evidence to world leaders of the demand for female condoms.
- Demanding an immediate increase in funding from national governments, bilateral donors, and multilateral donor agencies for the purchase, distribution, and program support needed to expand access to female condoms in every country.
- Demanding the immediate integration of the female condom into existing HIV prevention, reproductive health and family planning programs, and by working to ensure that these programs promote voluntary, informed choice.
To find out more about the Prevention Now! Campaign for female condoms and to get involved in supporting it, check out www.preventionnow.net.