As the world today recognises the importance of the female condom in the HIV prevention basket, perhaps it is time for us to take a fresh look at the potential of this life saving tool in stopping the spread of HIV, especially for women and girls.
Since 1998 when the Department of Health in South Africa procured 1.5 million FC1 Female Condoms, the landscape of HIV has changed dramatically. Globally, quantum leaps in the number of people on treatment, radical changes in political will and management of the epidemic, damaging rates of gender-based violence, the powerful positive role of men and boys in the fight to end this violence, have all served to push non-governmental organisations (NGOs), governments and donors to closely look at what works, in the most cost effective manner possible.
We now know that we have the scientific knowledge to end HIV. In a sector that has in many cases grown weary and at times felt that there might be no end to the scourge that has taken the lives of those we love, this is the perfect time to start the mindset change that we need to realise that the end of HIV is within our reach, in our lifetime. It is easier said than done, though. We need to harness the political will and resources to make this happen. We need to ensure that community-based organisations, at the coalface of the epidemic daily, are supported and funded.
We need to ensure that organisations that advocate for policy reform and speak truth to power are not silenced, we need to ensure that sexuality is not criminalised, we need to decriminalise sex work and address drug use in a manner that does not increase user vulnerability to HIV and violence, we need to protect those in detention from rape, and in the cases where rape, of anyone, does occur, we need to support the mental and physical recovery of the survivor and access to justice, and perhaps most importantly of all, we need to place women and girls at their rightful place in each and everything we do, at the very centre.
Protecting women and girls from violence and HIV could work well on both human rights and economic levels. This is reflected in the five cornerstones of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) AIDS+ Agenda:
- Securing the science: Innovations and responses that are robust enough to work on a global level for the rich and for the poor;
- Secure good laws: Urgently address damaging laws that restrict travel, criminalise adult sexual behavior and laws that punish people who use drugs or sell sex and laws that do not ensure the safety of women and girls from violence. Stop the discrimination;
- End discrimination: It is easier for people to access essential HIV services when laws do not get in their way. This is the third cornerstone. Your HIV status should not determine if you have access to health care, medical aid, education, nutrition or social security;
- Secure the money: We need to fully fund the response. So far world leaders have agreed to invest between US$22 - 24 billion in low- and middle-income countries annually by 2015, and ideology has to be replaced by evidence. The lives of those we love should take precedence over politics;
- Strengthen community ownership and global solidarity;
- When communities design and manage their own responses costs come down and results are guaranteed.
We also know what works in the response to HIV, we know that global AIDS related deaths are decreasing, we know that the numbers of children becoming infected is also decreasing, we know that just over a decade ago a few thousand people were on life prolonging drug cocktails, and we now have eight million mothers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, lovers, politicians, priests and civil servants living productive and healthy lives. Turning the focus to the female condom, by the end of September 2012, more than 13 million FC2 Female Condoms will have arrived in South Africa this year alone.
The FC1 (and now FC2) have for more than a decade been the only Female Condom approved by the World Health Organisation for public procurement and has, through its training and support arm, SUPPORT Worldwide, trained thousands of health workers, activists and government departments across South Africa. The history of getting the female condom into the hands of those who need it most, however, has not been without controversy.
In 2010, the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme, one of the country’s leading organisations in the fight against gender-based violence, hosted South Africa’s first National Dialogue on Universal Access to Female Condoms, which brought together some of the country’s leading NGOs , female condom manufacturers, research bodies and activists. At the end of the two-day dialogue, one thing was clear – the demand for this product is overwhelming and it is a key component in the basket of tools to prevent HIV. Several court battles later, instigated by companies who attempted to get unapproved female condoms into hospitals and clinics - which stifled the supply of the FC2, the Female Condom Programme was back on track with the courts putting the health and well-being of all users at the top of their agenda. Thankfully, to a large extent, the question of demand is actively being addressed.
At the recently concluded AIDS Conference in Washington DC, the Universal Access to Female Condoms Campaign brought together the voices of more than 20 000 women, girls, boys and men from across the globe in the form of messages written on paper dolls that clearly stated the demand and importance of this life saving tool.
This year, SUPPORT Worldwide partnered with provincial NGOs to expand awareness of, access to, and correct and consistent use of the FC2 to the end users - women and men who not only want to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy and STI’s but also rely on the FC2 for additional pleasure during sex.
One of those partners in Pretoria, Tshwane Learning Centre, a project under the Community Oriented Nursing Education Programme (CONEWCH), is now a training and distribution hub for the FC2 in the Gauteng Province, supplying NGOs and individuals with training, support and the FC2.
The Learning Centre strongly believes that female condom programming is central to the achievement of women’s rights. It therefore champions and promotes its increased procurement, distribution and promotion, more-so, in a country with the highest HIV burden in the world and high rates of unplanned pregnancies.
Through its provincial partner programme SUPPORT has established training and distribution centres in all nine provinces of South Africa working towards universal access. This year will see the roll out of the programme expand to road workers, truck drivers and sex work networks on a national level.
As with so many national and global days of recognition, be it AIDS, cancer or malaria, real change in the lives of those who need it most is what counts. The real change we seek to see is a world where women and men, everywhere, have access to not only the female condom but an environment where safe sex can be spoken about by women and men without the threat of stigma, discrimination or violence, and that is a cause worth fighting for. The lives of those we love depend on it.
You can tell the world why you think the female condom is important by going to www.sign4femalecondoms.org. For more information on training, support and to get your supply of FC2 Female Condoms, SMS ‘FC2’ to +27 73 432 4069.
Media Enquiries: Tian Johnson , Mobile: 073 432 4069, E-mail: email@example.com.
- Tian Johnson is the founder of the African Alliance for HIV Prevention and advisor to SUPPORT Worldwide.