Move Over, Moods

SIXTY ANIMATORS and about 3,000 women are ushering in a revolution in controlling unwanted conception and the spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) in Uttar Pradeshs Moradabad division. Their tool: the female condom – a 6.5 inch long polyure thane sheath with flexible rings at both ends – popularly known as the FC. This is the first initiative of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and Hindustan Latex Family Planning and Promotion Trust (HLFPPT) to introduce female condoms outside its initial target audience of sex workers.

In December 2007, the programme was kicked off in Moradabad, Jyotiba Phule Nagar and Bijnor districts, in partnership with the Bhartiya Grameen Vikas Sansthan (BGVS). So far, 2,500 female condoms have been sold to women members of Self Help Groups (SHGs) in the area at Rs 5 per piece. In each district, 20 animators were deployed to reach out to approximately 40-50 women each. The result, BGVS operation manager Arvind Kumar says, has been positive, adding, “We have ordered for 4,000 more condoms.”

Narain Kaur and Savita, both 38-year-olds, and residents of village Mehmadpur Patti, 10 kilometres from Gajraula in Western UP, are trained animators. Their task entails educating women about the usage of the female condom and its subsequent benefits. Savita recounts that the first time she talked about female condoms to a group of SHG members, they went red in the face. “The foremost step, I told them, was to shed their inhibitions. We (animators) used it before any of the other women in the area did.”

Today, a total of 420 women in the three districts use the condoms regularly. According to the women, the FC gives them a sense of control over their life and health. When 21- year-old Shashibala got married four years back, the concept of a female initiated method for contraception and HIV prevention was alien. However, today, the mother of two revels in her freedom to exercise the choice of safe sex. “Earlier the responsibility lay only with my husband. Now I too share it,” she says.

Shobhita Naithani, for Tehelka Magazine  

Common reasons cited by most women for preferring FC were its novelty, extra lubrication and a negligible chance of tearing during intercourse when compared to a male condom. Animators go on to say that for some of the women, the FC is truly a saving grace. “Their husbands are drunkards and often force themselves on their wives in an inebriated state,” says Archana, an animator. Since a FC can be inserted eight hours prior to intercourse, a wife is prepared even if her husband is not, she adds.

Large, unwieldy and requiring time and privacy to insert, FCs have their drawbacks, users say, but are quick to add that these are insignificant compared to that of male condoms.

The general populations response to the programme, despite their access to cheaper means of family planning, has surprised Manoj Gopalakrishnan, CEO of Hindustan Latex Limited. “We are in a dialogue with the government to incorporate FCs in the National Rural Health Mission so that it is available to the general population at a subsidised rate.” According to NACO, nearly 40 percent of the 2.5 million HIV positive victims living in India are women. NACO imported 5,00,000 female condoms in 2006 from the Female Health Company in UK.Its target is to obtain 1.5 million pieces in 2008.

The FC is no replacement for the male condom, but it is an emerging tool that holds the promise of womens empowerment by providing them with an alternative.

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