Strange as it may appear, children of Nkotamu, Traditional Authority Malemia in Nsanje enjoy playing with male condom ‘balloons’.
Sensing unusual attention to their ‘fun’, the children run away and only one has courage to take further questions.
“We don’t usually have the other type of balloons at our shops. These are the ever available ones,” explains 10-year-old Yotamu, who buys each condom at K30.
Yotamu claims he uses his school pocket money to buy condoms despite the hard socio-economic situation of Malawi’s most rural households.
It is very rare for parents in rural settings to give a child pocket money; otherwise, they know their children will have porridge at school at around 10 am.
Wearing a cream T-Shirt and holding the condom balloon against his chest, Yotamu looks innocent and confident as his friends peep at him talking with The Daily Times journalists.
He insists he knows no other usage of a condom other than inflating ‘balloons’ or making balls with them.
But surprisingly, the horrific sight of children playing with condom ‘balloons’ does not concern parents and guardians that are waiting for their turn to receive food relief donations at Nkotama School on this day.
Women are having their afternoon gossip, while men are catching up with latest stories of the area, as the children are also busy moving up and town of the place, carrying inflated condoms in hand.
The adults, although being fully aware that condoms are for sexually active people and are used as a protection from contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, and as a contraceptive, they pay no attention.
“There is nothing strange about what the children are doing today. You can actually see that nobody cares, that should tell you that we are used to seeing them,” says Godfrey Chilato of the same area.
He adds: “I advise my children not to play with ‘long-clear balloons’ but according to our culture, I can’t talk sex issues with them. So without going into details, I just told them they will contract deadly diseases.”
Senior Chief Malemia of Nsanje confirms that children are fond of playing with both used and unused condoms in his area.
“This is a very common habit here. We have received so many complaints, especially from school committees. The worst thing is children are also playing with used condoms. They can’t afford to buy condoms daily, so if they find one somewhere, they play with it. This is so sad,” laments the senior chief.
He says children innocently think a condom is a balloon and there is no sense in shop owners selling them to children or people to dispose of them carelessly, adding: “Condoms are a death trap. I wonder why people are this reckless. Others do their ‘stuff’ and throw them away without considering this generation of curious people.”
Malemia also reveals that most adults abuse the children by sending them to buy condoms for them as they wait in the rest houses because they are uneasy to do that on their own.
Media reports indicate that children playing with condoms are also rampant in Mangochi, where boys allegedly go on the hunt for used condoms at rest houses for use to make balls.
We have also learnt that it is possible that some medical personnel may be selling condoms meant for free distribution to shop owners who want to make profits by selling to anyone regardless of age.
Professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine Adamson Muula says the problem with children who play with condoms bought from shops (unused) is that one may not be sure whether these children may also pick from elsewhere.
“Not all people dispose of condoms safely after sex. If children think that condoms can be used for playing with (other than sex), they may not differentiate when or when not it may be safe to play with them,” he says.
Muula says there is need to emphasise that condoms are specifically made for sex to prevent HIV and STIs and unwanted pregnancies.
“Any other use of condoms whether it is for children playing or Christmas decoration is inappropriate. Children may not know the dangers of playing with condoms, so it is the responsibility of adults to tell them not to play with condoms. It is also the responsibility of adults to dispose of used condoms safely,” he stresses.
Executive Director for Pakachere Health and Development Institute Simon Sikwese says there is need to do more sensitisation on the issue to the public on proper condom disposal and shop owners to observe age when selling condoms.
“Everyone has a role to guide and protect these children. Organisations that are doing condom social marketing should also take an initiative to include this aspect of proper disposal and selling of condoms to children,” he says.
Principle Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Disability and Social Welfare Mary Shawa says it seems people have thrown away the basic training of condom usage and who to sell the condoms to.
“To every child, a condom is a balloon. The users have to ensure proper disposal by either throwing it into a pit latrine or wrap it properly and throw it in a bin and ensure that it doesn’t leave anything that would attract a child to play with,” she says.
Ministry of Health Spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe says the ministry is aware that children are playing with condoms not only in Nsanje but countrywide but they have limited powers to police over this.
“We are aware that children go an extent of playing with used condoms that were carelessly disposed of. Whether they are playing with used or unused condoms, the children are exposed to health hazardous things,” says Chikumbe.
He adds: “Just like some adults may be allergic to the gel that is in the condom, the children may also develop some health implications.”
Chikumbe also tells that it is important that people should be on the lookout for free condoms being sold on the market and report to relevant authorities just like they would report about theft of drugs and from public health facilities.
The Daily Times has learnt that condoms are either provided on demand for free at all public health facilities or clients collect from condom dispensers that are hung at health facilities. But branded condoms could be accessed from retail shops across the country.
Even though Chikumbe says one uses a maximum of four condoms at a time, so one is not allowed to get more than that, we have observed that there is no supervision as regards to the number of condoms one gets from the dispensers.
Media reports indicate that in 2013 alone, Population Services International (PSI) sold 7.5 million condoms and the organisation expects to sell condoms throughout the year as people need to protect themselves correctly and consistently each time they have sex throughout the year.
The reports indicate that Banja La Mtsogolo (BLM) sells about five million condoms in a year.
It is not clear as regards to the exact brand of condoms Yotamu and his pals are playing with but it is a fact that lives of children out there are at risk as they are playing with used and unused condoms.
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