Less than 1% of the condoms in the world are female condoms. Isn’t that peculiar? With the global population boasting a demographic with a female majority, why is the prevalence of and access to female condoms so low?
Well, female condoms are similar to male condoms in their materiality and overall functionality; however, they differ because they are the only contraceptive option controlled by women which has the ability to protect them from both unwanted pregnancies and most sexually transmitted infections. Female condoms represent women’s empowerment and enable women to take control of their reproductive health on their own terms.
Unfortunately, a host of barriers exist which impact women who seek to utilize female condoms. The widespread lack of education about the benefits of these condoms and the lack of education on the proper technique to use them hinder their effectiveness and leads to frustration to the user. Female condoms also challenge traditional gender roles as it relates to decision making and power in the bedroom; this can be viewed as a threat to masculinity in some cultures and communities. Statistics also highlight the fact that female condoms typically cost about $2 more than male condoms and may be perceived as a ‘less effective’ option due to confusing and, often times, incorrect user experience which decreases the product’s effectiveness.
Despite barriers ranging from a lack of product education, to the complexities of gender roles, to overall product costs, a series of country programs have proven that once people are educated on the proper use and benefit of female condoms, customers are born. Organizations such as Population Services International and its Zambian Affiliate, the Society for Family Health, have increasingly promoted awareness and educational campaigns about female condoms; consequently, a higher demand for them has been created. According to the Female Condoms for All UAFC Joint Program, civil society organizations, the government, United Nations agencies and the private sector are all required to begin improving the accessibility of female condoms by creating more low cost options which are widely distributed and available in even the most resource poor communities.
As a Design Specialist and member of the Communications team at the Society for Family Health (SFH), the top social marketing NGO in Zambia, I have seen firsthand the commitment of SFH to family planning and reproductive health advocacy. With an exciting new product in the pipeline, SFH stands at the forefront of conversations about what it means to truly have sustainably good reproductive health. My coworker Lute and I have participated in a female condom awareness campaign where we have posted myth-busting tips on social media, facilitated competitions such as Dance4Demand where people dance for access to female condoms, and organized a Pink Out day where the entire staff at SFH headquarters wore pink in solidarity for Global Female Condom Day. Our work led our team to be featured on a local Zambian radio station called Millennium to talk about the importance of breaking the stigma around female condoms through education and awareness.
My support for reliable reproductive health and family planning services around the world has been solidified by serving as a member of this dynamic female condom promoting team in a country where gender equality is lacking, where in 2013 there were 12,500 recorded unwanted pregnancies in primary schools, and where the prevalence of HIV is documented in 14.3% of people between the ages of 15-49. These facts have been firmly registered in my mind during a time when there is an escalating debate in America about funding for Planned Parenthood. As a global health activist and a southern Christian female engaged in the fight for social justice, I believe in equity and have never had a stronger conviction about the dire need for comprehensive and affordable sexual healthcare for all people in order to overcome health disparities and for humanity to collectively realize its highest potential. I believe that with increased support and more widespread access, female condoms will change the game of reproductive health around the world.