I walk around with a female condom in my purse. I don’t know that I will ever use it, to be honest, but as a global health enthusiast and a supporter of reproductive rights, I feel that I should have a female condom in my purse.
But isn’t that the issue with this condom?
That while we campaign for it and give away boxes and boxes, we never address the difficulty for society to embrace the status it gives a woman? She is responsible for her health in that moment. She is saying she is not waiting for the man to wear a condom because, “Look! I’ve got one already in my purse!”
It’s not for him, no. It is actually for her to wear.
I work for an NGO that promotes health equity and we have numerous boxes of the female condom in our office and in distribution centres across our areas of operation. (We always run out of the male condom almost as soon as we have them. In fact, I don’t think those boxes have been in office long enough for me to see them).
During a work trip to Lhubiriha near the border of DR Congo and Uganda, the commercial sex workers there spoke of the female condom as empowering because they could wear it before going out on the streets. They, however, also told us that while they did not need new supplies of it, they had run out of male condoms. Could we bring more boxes of those?
Every so often, when we go into other local communities and talk to them about the female condom; I wish the communities would put us on the spot and ask, “Do you use them?”
Initiating sex and women’s role
Shaming ourselves, of course, is not the answer to increasing the popularity of the female condom. But reflecting on the deeper issues involved in women’s experience in reproductive issues would help unpack the various reasons we keep stating as difficulties.
I know ‘deeper issues‘ is such a loaded term, especially when combined with ‘women’s experiences‘. And have we not been talking about these since suffrage, since women in Abeokuta bore their breasts publicly in colonial Nigeria, since governments came together in Beijing in 1995 and talked about gender mainstreaming, and then again in 2003 for the Maputo Protocol and in 2011, when the heads of state from the Great Lakes Region talked sexual and gender-based violence in Kampala? The popularity of ‘women’s issues’ is probably the reason we finally got the sense to design and distribute a female condom.
But how many women have initiated sex in their relationships? And what is our general opinion of them? Sexual relations are still centred heavily around the man and his needs and resources. He takes the woman out for drinks. He says outrageous things and she giggles. She refuses if she doesn’t want his attention. If she does want his attention, she is receptive. It is all about him giving the attention and her accepting or refusing, not her giving this attention to him.
While this is a generalisation and might not apply to every woman, it does, however, speak to what we think of as ‘conventional’ in our society. If the woman is the recipient of attention, how then do we switch all of this to her being in charge of the condom used when it comes to sex?
The language of agency
Products like the female condom can help us dismantle such systematic patriarchal bias in many ways. This is a feminist signifier of our agency in that it is a safe and accessible product for women which decentralises the safe sex negotiation process between a man and woman. It is something a woman can buy and wear for her own body, in much the same way that men have been doing with the male condom.
But I think that beyond the blanket message that goes, “a woman has a condom, so now she has power”, we should think about the greater context of women’s sexual positioning and package the female condom alongside a conversation around sexuality. Let’s question our own biases about this condom. Let’s take it to our bedrooms and address our own challenges. This is not something that we are going to unlearn with a single shipment of funded female condoms. Rather, it is a long and potentially uncomfortable conversation that is going to have to start as early as possible; a conversation about who gets to have control over, and access to, their bodies and who allows, and is allowed, that access.
And it is a conversation that can only begin if we are honest enough to expose our vulnerabilities.