Thursday, October 24, 2002

Zarina Geloo

Men feel female condoms threaten patriarchy

LUSAKA — Sonile Zulu is very comfortable using the female condom 'Femidom' as it is popularly known.

She says she just cannot understand all the fears and criticism around its use in Zambia that successfully scuttled a campaign to make it the ultimate empowerment tool for women when it was launched.

Most women shy away from using Femidom. The two most common reasons cited are its alleged unreliability as a contraceptive and a mistaken perception that it is only for sex workers, as a safeguard against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Most Zambians think HIV is contracted from having multiple partners.

Zulu dismisses the first reason as "juvenile talk". "I am quite irritated by all this juvenile talk about female condoms. The bottom line is that people do not know how to use the Femidom .It offers the same protection as the male condoms and if they cannot understand that, they should not be having sex at all."

The second criticism, Femidoms' association with sex workers, is the result of "skewed" advocacy, fumes Judy Brown, a family planning advisor and HIV/AIDS activist. Femidom is packaged in Zambia as a prevention tool for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases and targeted at sex workers who are in the high-risk category.

Brown can see why it has happened this way. "There is a kind of urgency in stemming HIV infections and so it seems to make sense to concentrate on sex workers — (unfortunately) the fact that it is also a contraceptive is obscured," she laments.

A condom use survey conducted by the Society for Family Health (SFH) in 2000 appears to bear out Brown. The survey, which was conducted on over 3,000 people across Zambia, says only 2 percent of married respondents had ever used a female condom and it was more experimental than something they used regularly.

In addition, men felt Femidom threatens patriarchy. "By using a condom my wife is demonstrating a liberation I am uncomfortable with. It is as though she cannot trust that I can protect her," the survey quotes Gideon Nambeye, a primary schoolteacher who forbade his wife from using the Femidom. "For prostitutes yes, they have to look out for themselves, but married women, I don't think so," he firmly stated.

So are sex workers in Zambia using the female condom? "The condoms are noisy, our clients complain it distracts them, and we are also not confident in using them for fear of it moving out of place or getting stuck inside," says sex worker Tari Munkombwe.

According to her, her colleagues complain that insertion was "cumbersome" because the condom needs lubrication at times and also the plastic erodes sensation, reducing the sexual pleasure for both partners.

At times clients tell them to reduce their charges if they use a female condom because it comes in the way of having "rough" sex, in case it moves or slips further into the vagina, says Munkombwe.

"No one is willing to give it (the female condom) a chance," rues Zulu, who wonders why if men do not get "rough" after putting on a condom, why should they expect the female condom to be different.

She says of all the people that have used it even once, no one has said the condom moved or slipped or got lost. They expressed fears of that happening but not that it actually happened, she adds.

The female condom is made from strong thick plastic, polyurethane, and held in place by soft plastic rings. It sticks to the vaginal walls and can be inserted two to eight hours before intercourse. Medical personnel say it would be impossible for it to get "lost" in the vagina.

Clear instructions on the packet caution users against "leakages" by giving very specific instructions on how it is to be worn. The pack also includes a lubricant for easier application.

Other problems dog Femidom in Zambia. Munkombwe says male condoms are easily accessible in grocery stories, kiosks and pharmacies, but female condoms are to be found at family planning clinics, if at all.

The reason for this has everything to do with profit, says pharmacist Rafik Moosa. When Femidom was introduced in 1994 all pharmacies and shops were given supplies. Both the male and female condoms were sold at K1000 (about 20 U.S. cents) but only the male condoms moved.

He says: "I was stuck with the female ones until they expired and had to throw them out. I have never ordered them again and I don't know anybody who does. I think it is only the government clinics who stock them."

Alex Katambala, spokesperson of the Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia (PPAZ), said Femidoms, like the male condoms, will just have to take getting used to.

"The issues that are coming up with the female condoms are the same ones we had with the male condoms, it is just a matter of people getting used to them. There seems to be problems, but these will fade away just like they did for male condoms."

Not many organisations advocate the use of Femidoms. "In many ways there is a sense of fatigue. We tried so hard to get acceptance with the male condoms, we now have to go through the whole rigmarole with the female condom — we just distribute what people prefer — the male condom," says advertising executive Tandiwe Zulu.

Given Malama, a banker who has used a female condom "once or twice", says it is a gender thing. She says marketing firms know that it is men who have the purchasing power so they concentrate on consumables for men.

"In fact I do not see any adverts or messages about Femidom at all. I have not seen adverts making it appear sexy, attractive or clever, which is what I see in the male condom advertisements," she asserts.

Malama calls for a renewed crusade to make women aware they have the right to protect themselves. Femidom should be an option as a contraceptive as well, especially when a woman wants to stop using chemical contraceptives like the pill or the loop. She concludes: "It is lack of information that is making Femidom die out."

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Created: November 14, 2002
Last modified: November 15, 2002
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