Protecting SA women with pleasure

South Africans will today (September 16) join scores of other nationalities around the world to mark the second Annual Global Female Condom Day – a day of education and advocacy dedicated to female condoms.

And as we do so, we will, together with the rest of the international community, be celebrating the coming on the market of fantastic new and improved female condoms that combine prevention with pleasure , which boosts women's control of their sexual health.

Unlike the previous latex versions that were not received very enthusiastically locally, the new versions of female condoms offer exceptional quality, by most accounts, and are expected to get a much better reception from both males and females.

Women face significant health challenges globally, including unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In South Africa, the issue of women's sexual health is closely linked to their socio-economic and cultural standing in society.

Indeed, while our country has done well with regards to the political empowerment and emancipation of women over the past 20 years of our democracy, this positive progress has not benefited all women.

This sad reality is borne by ugly facts such as: South African women are affected by unemployment 30 times more than men; HIV/Aids mainly affects women in our country; 25% of men say they have raped a woman; and at least 50% of women say they have suffered gender-based violence.

Even within the sexual health discourse, women living in poor socio-economic conditions, as well as in rural areas tend to have less rights, knowledge and access to contraceptive services. This not only leads to lower contraceptive use, but also exacerbates their socio-economic disadvantages.

Similarly, education has a strong impact on contraceptive use among women. The Department of Health has reported that current access to contraceptives among sexually active women with post-high school qualifications is twice as high as those with no education.

All these situations are not helped by the fact that there is often little knowledge about contraceptive choices. Although almost all women in South Africa know about contraception, most have limited knowledge of the range of contraceptive methods available, which hampers their ability to make informed choices about methods most suitable for them as individuals.

This is why the increasing availability of new and improved female condoms that combine protection with pleasure in the South African market, thereby boosting women's control of their sexual health, must be welcomed.

As the only methods available for dual protection against pregnancy and STIs, both male and female condoms play a vital role in sexual and reproductive health, particularly in developing countries such as ours.

In that regard, it is hoped that the expansion in choice of female condoms in South Africa and elsewhere around the world will lead to their increased use. Globally, the use of female condoms has remained disappointingly low, because very few have been distributed, as well as the fact that there have not been strong interventions to promote their use.

At a recent seminar hosted by PATH Soul City and WISH Associates in Johannesburg, it was also learnt that women wanted a female condom that was easier to insert, use, and remove; that was more stable, so that they didn’t have to worry that it would be dislodged or move out of place during use; that was more comfortable and less noisy for both partners; and that interfered less with sensation.

The new designs actually provide a better sensation, which is not surprising given the incredible plastic technology that is now being used.

To achieve such a truly user-driven product, PATH had established testing sites around the world with populations that varied widely in physical and cultural needs - and had gathered input from couples in places such as Thailand, Mexico and South Africa.

The result was a female condom that is easy to insert and remove, is very stable during sex, and feels good for both partners – called Woman's Condom. This will be available in South Africa in early 2014, as one product among the increasing variety of quality female condoms available on the market.

One of the most important aspects of the female condom is that it gives women more control over their own sexuality, particularly in those instances where male partners are not willing and able to use a condom – thus taking away reliance on a partner for having safe and pleasurable sex.

Two other un-extolled benefits of the female condom are that it can be inserted hours before intimacy and some men actually like the idea of a female condom more than the male one.

By Lebo Ramafoko
(Lebo Ramafoko is CEO of the Soul City Institute, Africa’s biggest health and development communication organisation – and SA ambassador of PATH's new Woman's Condom.)

This analysis was published in The New Age on 16 September 2013

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