In an HIV prevention focus group in Malawi, a woman raised her hand. She asked the facilitator if he would be able to go to the condom company and ask them to make a condom for women. That way, she and the other women in her community would have options to protect themselves from HIV, and plan their families. They wouldn't have to rely on their partners to initiate condom use. They could have the opportunity to protect their own health.
Rowlands Kaotcha, country director at The Hunger Project-Malawi (THP-Malawi), was leading the group and his answer was simple, though surprising to the community: There already is a condom for women. There is not, however, an adequate supply. Unfortunately, many decision makers are stuck on the pervasive myth that no one wants female condoms.
This myth has been proven wrong countless times. Based on the need expressed by the woman in their focus group, THP-Malawi began female condom distribution using peer educators. They distribute 30,000 female condoms every three months in the handful of communities they serve. They added male peer educators once they realized that almost half the people asking for female condoms were men. In Zimbabwe, one organization sold 2 million female condoms in 2009. In Nigeria, 1.4 million female condoms were distributed in 2011, approximately eight times the number distributed just two years earlier.
Demand is increasing because female condoms provide men and women with something they want: more options when it comes to protecting themselves. Female condoms are another tool that is proven to work for both family planning and HIV prevention, and one that men and women like.
Despite all this proof of demand, advocates find they must still fight to convince donors and governments to invest in female condoms. With a grant from the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), a group of organizations including THP-Malawi set out ensure an uninterrupted supply of female condoms in Malawi. They met with officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who were surprised to hear evidence of an unmet demand for female condoms -- they had believed the myth repeated to them by local government officials that no one wanted female condoms. However, when presented with evidence to the contrary, USAID started talking with different institutions about meeting the demand.
To its credit, the U.S. government is a global leader on female condoms. But there is still room for improvement. U.S.-funded HIV prevention programs -- such as those that include male circumcision or prevention of HIV transmission during pregnancy and labor -- should all include education about and access to female condoms. U.S.-funded family planning programs should include female condoms because they offer women the ability to plan their families as well.
And female condoms are more than an HIV prevention and family planning method. They give women something they may have never had before -- a tool to exercise their human right to protect their health. Female condoms are an opportunity to promote women's rights as much as they are an opportunity to fight HIV, because they can and they do generate important conversations within couples and communities about love, protection, trust and power. That's what makes them so special, and so worthy of investment. There is no downside -- only an opportunity to provide prevention options, and so much more.
This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by The Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y,United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday - which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 - is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to www.givingtuesday.org to learn more and get involved.