Fifteen years after the female condom was first introduced1, very few people even know of its existence. One would think that the silent genocide being perpetrated by holding back this life saving option would have received the attention that it so deserves.
In 2008, Thohoyandou Victims Empowerment Programme (TVEP), a rural-based women’s rights organisation located in one of South Africa’s most under resourced provinces, Limpopo, embarked on a training programme that sought to impart information to village women on the importance and correct use of the Female Condom.
As the only woman initiated tool that has been proven to be effective in the prevention of HIV, STIs and unplanned pregnancies, it seemed clear that this technology should be a key feature of South Africa’s response to the epidemic which for years has had a black, female, unemployed face.
The training also sought to position Female Condom use as ‘sexy’ for both women and men, essentially turning the device into a sex toy and winning half of the ‘bedroom power battle’.
After training more than 70 women and men2 on the Social Marketing of the Female Condom, TVEP began to receive complaints from the ‘Female Condom Ambassadors’… “Where can we get this Female Condom we are now excited about?”….” The clinic has none, the hospital only gave me three….”
As an organisation that was for the last seven years fairly politically naïve, after several calls and enquiries to Government Departments at all levels, we found ourselves having to look at the bigger, more contentious issue of Female Condom Programming in South Africa, that of procurement. Always a sensitive topic in a country plagued by tender irregularities and mismanagement of public funds, we then realised that South Africa’s National Strategic Plan (2007–2011) contained provision for the purchase of 425 million male condoms yet only THREE million female condoms!
As in the rest of the world, patriarchy is not unique to South Africa, and after encountering a range of responses from the Government’s Department of Health3 (female condoms are too expensive, women don’t like them, how many men ‘like’ the male condom?, women don’t demand them, etc.) we decided that the time was now to spark national debate around this issue.
More than 78 national NGOs convened at South Africa’s first National Dialogue4 on Universal Access to Female Condoms and one thing was clear: everyone agreed that the female condom was a key tool in the HIV prevention battle. The Human Rights Commission called the lack of affordable access to Female Condoms a human rights violation.
A declaration was adopted that contained several commitments to support the struggle for Universal Access to Female Condoms in South Africa. Unfortunately, TVEP remains one of the only South African NGOs that has Female Condoms at the core of its advocacy work.
In 2009, TVEP took a decision to facilitate a National Audit into the Procurement, Distribution and Social Marketing of the Female Condom in South Africa.
The procurement environment in South Africa is flawed, with tender guidelines effectively excluding all but one manufacturer of Female Condoms from securing the contract. This has resulted in several court actions being brought to have the tender nullified. As a direct result of this we have seen persistent national shortages of Female Condoms. TVEP is currently looking into legal action against the National Department of Health and Treasury in this regard to ensure that the procurement environment is transparent, accountable and competitive to ensure reduction in the “high costs” of saving women’s lives!
This aspect of the Audit will document the extent to which Government (as well as civil society) has failed in the promotion of this life saving technology. The audit will cover an analysis of public nurses training curricula, home-based caregiver training content as well as Government’s communications systems on HIV prevention in general and Female Condoms in particular.
This audit is underway and the final report is due for circulation at the end of 2010.
Now, with the Soccer World Cup a few days away we wonder how far we as women’s rights activists need to go to ensure that this critical life saving (and sexy!) disease prevention tool remains on the agenda - free of profiteering, corruption and power games that strip away yet another option that women have to ensure a healthy, productive life, not only for themselves but for their children, partners and communities as a whole.
As long as the Female Condom remains off the Government’s radar, the efforts to stem the tide of the disease will have minimal impact and both civil society and Government continue to be the failed heroes of the struggle for health rights for all.
Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, perhaps WE will be the new heroes that take up this struggle, on behalf of our mothers, sisters and daughters who die needlessly from a preventable disease but are denied the tools to protect themselves.
We should be ashamed, shouldn’t we?
Some quotes from previous and current “leaders” on HIV prevention that, if taken seriously and backed by sufficient political will, I might not be writing this article!
Barbara Hogan: "It was imperative to get ahead of the curve of this epidemic 10 years ago," she said. "We all have lost ground. It’s even more imperative now that we make HIV prevention work…”
South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, “…let me assure you that the government of South Africa will continue to support research into microbicides as well as to procure and distribute large numbers of female condoms.”
20th August 2009, SANAC Women’s Sector Prevention Summit
South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe answering a question in parliament “ With regards to the prevention of new HIV infections, Government and all SANAC sectors are rolling out targeted prevention programmes to ensure that those who are HIV negative remain so. Examples of these are: social mobilisation; information, communication and education programmes; risk reduction campaigns, the provision of male and female condoms, the treatment of sexually transmitted infections and the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission programmes.”
9 September 2009, Parliament
It’s times like this that I wish I could use our World Cups pay off line… “Ke Nako…It’s Time!“
- Tian Johnson is Research, Advocacy and Special Projects Advisor at the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme.
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