What about the female condom?

14th September 2007

Unpopular and misunderstood, the female condom has failed to take off in Kenya, depriving women of one of the few means over which they have control of protecting themselves against HIV infection in male-dominated societies.

"The introduction of the female condom in Kenya has failed to slow down HIV in women," Dr Enoch Kibunguchy, assistant minister for health, told IRIN/PlusNews. An estimated 740,000 women are infected with the virus, and carry the burden of HIV in the country.

"The female condom was introduced in Kenya in a wrong manner. Manufacturers dumped the condoms in the country and did not bother to provide accurate information on its use," he said. "A belated attempt by the government raise its profile came in too late, as attitude against it had already become ingrained."

Over 200,000 of the condoms were supplied in 2007 but consumption was a paltry 10,000, while an estimated 12 million male condoms were used every month, according the director of the National Aids Control Council, Prof Alloys Orago.

"While consumption of the male condom has been rising because of its low cost, the cost of the female condom is outrageously high," he added. The female condom retails for as much as US$3, which is beyond the means of most women.

Cultural barriers also often made it difficult for women to negotiate safer sex. "Although the [female] condoms are dispensed at government facilities for free, few women go for them," said Kibunguchy.

"Women give the condom a wide berth because it is cumbersome to wear, while others find it embarrassing. Even among the highly educated and professional class of women, the female condom is not a popular contraceptive." However, he said the government would keep promoting the use of the female condom.

Reversing the unpopularity of the female condom would require "a change in attitude", Kibunguchy commented. "Even economic empowerment, although critical, may not raise female condom uptake if supply and information are not well matched."

AIDS activists agreed, with many blaming the poor uptake of the female condom on insufficient effort by government to popularise it.

Too early to give up

Allan Ragi, executive director of the Kenya AIDS NGOs Consortium (KANCO), an umbrella organisation for HIV/AIDS civil society, called on the government to refocus its energies on making the female condom more widely available.

"For poor, rural women, the female condom is a lifeline; if a woman's husband shows up drunk at midnight, wanting to have sex, if she's already ... [got] the condom then she ... [can be] protected," he said. "But accessibility has been a problem since the beginning - where is this woman supposed to get the condom?"

Better marketing and more information were necessary to ensure that all women in Kenya had the condom as an option for protection against sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, Ragi said. "Family planning and antenatal clinics would be a good starting point to empower women with the knowledge and the condoms."

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September 14 2007, PlusNews

Categories: Kenya, Market Development Approaches Working Group