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on the radar: International AIDS Conference


Female Condoms: a Tool to Stop AIDS

TORONTO, Aug. 15- Female condoms, a potent weapon against AIDS, are an idea whose time has not only come but has been waiting around for years, researchers told the 16th International AIDS Conference yesterday - they just need better marketing.

The latex devices, first marketed in the mid-1990s, have won broad acceptance in field trials in 40 countries, according to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, which sponsored the evening panel discussion, one of more than 400 scheduled at this week-long gathering. "Things we know today, like female condoms, could stop this epidemic," said Mitchell Warren, now executive director of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and a longtime advocate for the devices. He called it "shocking" that only about 12 million are produced annually, half of which go to Brazil and South Africa, and most people still do not know the product exists.

Bruce Campbell, former UNFPA representative in Zimbabwe, said the agency had distributed as many there as it could get. "Female condoms are expensive," about $1.70 each, "and we don't have enough money to bring in more supplies," he said. The price is a function of volume, Mitchell said: the greater the demand, the more producers would create, bringing down the unit price.

"However low the price is, for some people it's unaffordable," said Esperance Fundira, UNFPA representative in Malawi, where per capita income is less than $1 per day. She said the agency marketed female condoms in non-traditional places such as food markets and hair salons, but noted that the visibility of the devices means male partners must be recruited to cooperate in their use. She said UNFPA targeted sex workers in Malawi who introduce them as toys. But Campbell said that in Tanzania the agency had not targeted sex workers initially so as to avoid stigmatizing female condoms by association.

Such mixed approaches are required for varying cultural situations, the panelists agreed. Simone Martins da Silva, a consultant to Brazil's successful AIDS prevention efforts, said specific strategies were used for each target group, but that all got individual counseling and free male condoms as well. Conference participants each received a cloth packet containing a sample female condom and pictorial instructions on its use.

Mitchell praised The Pleasure Project, a British-based organization that works "to put the pleasure back in safer sex" and presents female condoms as a sex toy. "The social marketing for male condoms has been very successful but isn't matched yet for female condoms," he said.

Joanne Omang is a former Washington Post reporter and foreign correspondent.