Monday, May 12, 2008

Female condom, a lifeline

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
A small group of women stand around in a hair salon in Chilomoni. Business has come to a temporary stand-still as each one of them is engrossed in what one of the ladies, Chipiliro Kamtema is doing. Kamtema has a female condom in her hands and she is explaining to the women on how to use it.

All the women in the salon have already pledged that they will start using the female condom. The owner of the salon, Jacqueline Talama-Jamu, has placed an order with Kamtema to have 10 dispensers of the condoms delivered to her within the following week.

Kamtema loves her job; she boasts that she would have been dubbed “a knight in shining armour” if she were a man. She goes around hair salons in Blantyre City promoting the new brand of female condoms called Care. She says she is saving lives.

The bubbly lady works for Population Services International (PSI) as Senior Care Promoter. She says that a lot of women in the commercial capital are in total awe of the female condom; its capabilities to save lives and the responsibilities it bestows on women to ensure their own protection against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

“They say I am contributing to saving lives just by doing my job and that’s why I call myself a knight of some sort,” says Kamtema.

She explains that women are so keen on female condoms.

“For once, women have the authority on their protection against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy and they love this new responsibility,” Kamtema says.

Talama-Jamu is not the only hair salon owner who is keen on selling the female condom to her clientele; PSI Malawi is already working with up to 2,800 hair salons in the country’s four major urban centres of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba in making the female condoms available to the public.

“The salon is a place where most women throw away any inhibitions and are able to talk to fellow women on a lot of important issues including sexual health. I have already started promoting the Care condom to everyone who comes to my salon,” says Talama-Jamu.

Talama-Jamu says she has been teaching her customers the importance of using a female condom and also on how to use it.

“I demonstrate to them on how to insert and remove it. Apart from educating them, we have fun in joking about this new initiative as well,” Talamu-Jamu explains.

She says she is also making a good profit from the condom sales. PSI sells a pack of two condoms at K23 to the salon owners and they, in turn, sell them to their customers for K35.

PSI Malawi says experience and research has shown that hair salons are an effective marketplace for female condoms, as well as an excellent venue for providing targeted interpersonal and behavior change communications activities.

Today, PSI Malawi, with support from Ministry of Health and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), will be launching the Care female condoms, a branded, social-marketed female condom, which offers dual protection against unplanned pregnancies and HIV/Aids.

PSI/Malawi has trained and employed a team of female Care promoters, like Kamtema to distribute and promote Care female condoms in the nation’s many hair salons. These Care promoters will in turn train hair salon staff on how to demonstrate the correct use of female condoms for their customers, encouraging them to purchase the product and empowering them to protect themselves against unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/Aids.

Country Representative for PSI/Malawi, John Justino says the launch of a female condom social marketing programme in Malawi was made possible through “the incredible determination and drive” of the Ministry of Health’s Reproductive Health Unit (RHU) and the UNFPA.

“At PSI/Malawi, we are very pleased with the partnership with the RHU and UNFPA and we are proud of our joint achievements and the launch of Care Female Condoms. We are particularly pleased as this programme demonstrates clearly the government of Malawi’s efforts, as well as those of UNFPA and PSI, to help empower Malawian women to make choices that enable them to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and HIV/Aids,” says Justino.

UNFPA Condom Coordinator Sandra Mapemba explains that her organisation is the United Nations lead agency for issues of HIV prevention hence its support towards PSI.

Mapemba says UNFPA has the expertise and experience in procurement and educating communities on correct and consistent use of male and female condoms to help safeguard sexual and reproductive health.

“UNFPA provides quality condoms and provides the best prices because it is the largest public-sector procurer of condoms in the world,” says Mapemba.

She says UNFPA also supports the RHU in the Ministry of Health through technical assistance in comprehensive condom programming.

Mapemba says the female condom programme took off in 2000 mainly through the Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) and selected health centres throughout the country.

Achievements on the female condom initiative that have been recorded by RHU include an increase in the distribution of female condoms from 124,000 pieces between 2004 and 2006 to 298,000 pieces in 2007.

Meanwhile, fifteen PSI country programs worldwide currently distribute female condoms using innovative approaches that combine peer education and mass media communications with innovative distribution strategies.

A press statement from PSI Malawi indicates that experiences in Zimbabwe and Zambia indicate that female condom marketing programs must complement conventional commercial selling strategies with creative, non-conventional distribution methods that are built upon existing female social networks and gatherings places, such as hair/beauty salons. Since their launch in 1997 and 1995 respectively, a total of over 7 million female condoms have been sold in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

After the Malawi launch, PSI/Malawi will begin putting the power and reach of the commercial marketplace to work to ensure the broad availability of Care female condoms nationwide.