Nicole is an upwardly mobile professional married woman. She and many like her were the primary targets of agencies that sought to promote the use of the female condom in a bid to give women more power in negotiating safe sex.
However, Nicole says she had never had the occasion, nor desire, to use the female condom, despite getting one at an HIV and Aids workshop years back.
“I find it so easy to go in a store to buy a male condom compared to a female condom because it’s something that I know is user friendly. I was once given a female condom in 2006 when I attended an Aids workshop but never used it,” Nicole, who stays in Belvedere and has been married for five years, said.
Nicole represents a large number of women in the country who, while being aware of the female condom, just assume it is not user-friendly and do not attempt to use it.
Although the female condom was introduced in the country 14 years ago, few women have taken up the opportunity to use it to protect themselves from sexually- related infections and as a form of contraceptive.
A local female journalist who was one of the people who participated in the pilot project to test the female condom at its launch in 1997, explained her experience.
“The female condom is not easy to insert but when you have it, you won’t feel the contraption. My husband didn’t even feel the difference when I used it, everything was just normal,” she said.
The Ministry of Health and Child Welfare national condom programme coordinator Sinokuthemba Xaba said there is a lot of knowledge that needs to be imparted to people to increase the uptake of female condoms in the country.
He said people were still more comfortable using the male condom compared to the female condom as the latter is fairly new globally.
“Zimbabwe has done exceptionally well in the uptake of female condoms as it has the highest female condom uptake globally for the prevention of unintended pregnancies, STIs and HIV.”
“Despite the success as a country we still know that we can still do a lot more for the uptake of the female condom,” Xaba said.
Xaba said challenges for the use of female condoms include inadequate negotiating skills for the use of condoms in marital and long-term relationships. This is true for both male and female condoms, he added.
He said the false perception that marriage is a protective factor is also a challenge in the acceptance of condoms as people who are married are still being infected through having unprotected sex.
According to sexual health non-governmental organisation Population Services International and Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council statistics, female condoms consumption and distribution per year has been increasing since 2000 from less than one million users to 4,8 million users last year.
But these figures merely show the number of female condoms distributed but are unable to show if they were actually used.
“Some women still lack knowledge on female condoms including information on how to insert them. Female condoms require practice for one to be able to use them.
“It has been proved that about three attempts are necessary before one is comfortable in using them,” Xaba said.
He said female condoms do not have any known side effects, they are made of nitrile, which is hypo-allergenic and does not cause any allergies or itching.
Xaba said the material is a conductor of heat and feels as close to normal as possible.
He said condoms are being used by all types of women, the single, married and the elderly.
“Because of the extra lubrication that they have, they are particularly good for the menopausal women who already have less natural vaginal fluids,” he said.
According to a 2008 study entitled Female Condom Uptake and Acceptability in Zimbabwe conducted by Sue Napierala and others (published in the Aids and Prevention Journal 2008), there have been both successes and failures in the uptake of this method not only in the country but globally as well.
“Despite a social marketing campaign beginning in the mid-1990s promoting the female condom in Zimbabwe, uptake of this method has been relatively minimal.
“Though records show a steady increase of the female condom sales from 1998 to 2002, in our study sample in Harare, Zimbabwe, only a small percentage of women had ever used this method,” the report said.