By Paola Salwan, Programme Assistant for Africa, Middle East and Europe at the World YWCA and co-founder of the blog Café Thawra

Today, let us broach a rather difficult subject.

Oh, I might as well tell you right from the beginning, so you know where you stand.

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I’m talking about female condoms.

Go on, blush. Or maybe don’t, I don’t know, it’s not because I blushed at first that you have to react in the same way.

And yes, I admit to a fair amount of blushing the first couple of times I heard about it and saw it being demonstrated. See, this was before I started working for the Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent Societies in their HIV department and for a women’s rights organisation.

Now, I demonstrate it to young women, advocate for it, and badger my friends during our dinners for them to be aware of the Female Condom. Probably not the best way to entertain a dinner party, but a girl has to do what she has to do, and if it involves making your friends shriek with laughter and urge you to keep your voice down or think you might be a tad obsessed with work, then so be it. I’m willing to carry the disgrace.

In my, admittedly short, but intense experience as a women’s rights worker, I have noticed how curious women were towards the female condom. Oh they won’t come up straight to you and ask you for a presentation, but will rather start their approach cautiously, like « Paola ? What is this on your documentation’s table? », innocence personified, as if it was just a random question. You know they’re interested, but don’t want to push them and scare them away, so you listen carefully to their questions, until you sense that they’re comfortable enough for you to ask your question: “Would you like me to open it and demonstrate it so you know what it’s about?”. Enthusiastic yes coming from blushing faces. I’ll always remember when a delegation of Sudanese women came to pay us a visit at our offices in Geneva and dropped in the conversation “Oh, by the way, we’ve never ever seen a condom (male or female)”. Our HIV Coordinator jumped to her feet, and started the demonstration and explanation, and before we knew it, our guests were examining the condoms in disbelief, laughing, thinking of how their men would react should they bring up this issue in front of them.

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And this is when the female condom is brilliant. Not all women on this planet have the extreme privilege of being able to negotiate the use of a male condom with their partners. Some even get beaten up for daring to talk about it, some don’t even know it exists. This leads to a situation where a woman is completely dependent on her husband/boyfriend when it comes to contraception and self-protection. In many cultures, women are not supposed to watch the numbers of children they’ll have, their primary role being motherhood, nor are they even allowed to question the sex life of their husbands. So if a woman has doubts regarding the faithfulness of her partner, she won’t be able to ask him to wear a condom in order to protect herself from HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). Besides, even if a woman can talk about this issue with her partner, the female condom enables to share the contraception and protection duties, becoming equally responsible for the couple’s health and future.

The use of the female condom thus reduces the vulnerability of women by rendering them more independent. Because a female condom (FC or FC2 type) can be inserted up to 8 hours before sexual intercourse, women can be their own protective agent and stop relying on men when it comes to their own sexual and reproductive health. Nevertheless, condom distribution is nothing if it isn’t coupled with education and negotiation skills for women. It could happen, if the man is violent or drunk, that he doesn’t even notice his partner wearing a female condom, but this is not the situation we should aim for. Indeed, if a man refuses to wear a male condom and realises his wife/girlfriend is wearing one, the woman will most likely suffer from ill treatment, with all sorts of name-calling, as I’ll let you imagine.

Thing is, many men don’t want to wear a condom because they claim that it reduces their pleasure etc…A good argument for negotiating protection for women would be to present the female condom as something that would increase their pleasure. No matter under which light we present the condom, negotiation skills are paramount to condom programming and should be part of any serious condom distribution, along with demonstration.

However, the female condom, as all contraceptive methods, has its own disadvantages: it is rather expensive, and not particularly user-friendly.

But even these drawbacks can’t hide the potential revolution in the Female Condom. It is high time women claim back their sexual and reproductive rights, and it starts with their own selves.

Women of the world, be your own agents of change!