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Men: Lone survivors in gender sensitive world?

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The path to Queen’s Park and Culture clubs at Chigwirizano Trading Centre in Lilongwe looks , as usual, clean— which is not strange because this is a path well paved and travelled.

Indeed, if the rains that fell in the 2016/17 agricultural season did not wash away people’s shoe marks and [vehicle] tyre marks, there would be thousands of marks upon thousands of other marks. These are marks of human activity, after all.

But life— meaning, time— has a way of cleaning marks that tell stories of the past.

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The past may be gone and forgotten, but some of the features that were part of the past remain part of the present. Take, for instance, the stalls lined up along this well-paved, well-travelled path.

In the past, the stalls stocked condoms, male condoms to be precise. That aspect has remained constant. This is an aspect of something that was there.

There is also a case of something that was not there [in the past] and is not there [today]. This, without much ado, is the Female Condom (FC).

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As one of the traders, who simply identifies himself as Stevie, says, he does not see the need, let alone the urgency, to stock FCs.

“No trader who loves his money would stock female condoms because, to begin with, women do not ask for them. Women get free male condoms, and not female condoms, from the hospital. Surprisingly, they [the women] do not get female condoms from the hospital, meaning that male condoms are the ones that are on demand.

“Secondly, all the people who have stalls here are male, which means we prioritise males. If we had one or two females selling merchandise, maybe they would have the presence of mind to order female condoms for sale. I would rather sell male condoms because the price ranges from K150 to K200, which is far above the market price,” Stevie says.

Officially sanctioned, but by no means commonly used, FCs are ‘finding’ it hard to claim their place in the anonymity of most male traders’ minds.

The challenge is that this problem is not isolated to Chigwirizano Trading Centre in Lilongwe.

In Mulanje District, specifically Traditional Authority (T/A) Juma, Namphungo Trading Centre fits the cap of a land of ironies.

Why? In an area dominated by women, it is men whose health needs are prioritised, although women cannot completely be ruled out when it comes to FC use.

Records at Namphungo Health Centre indicate that the number of youths who seek Sexual Reproductive Health Services (SRH) has risen from 60 to 600 between June 2013 and June 2017.

Consequently, the number of female condoms distributed has been increasing, rising from zero to an average of 80 condoms per month.

But, compared to Lilongwe, however, Mulanje’s female population may be described as ‘progressive’. Joneha [Network of Journalists Living with HIV] Newsletter indicates in its August 2014 edition that the women of Kalamula Village in T/A Chitukuta, Lilongwe, have been shunning female condoms altogether.

The newsletter quotes one of the area’s community nurses, Mercy Chamvula, as saying that, while health facilities in the area run out of male condoms more often than not, female condoms are always in abundance.

“In the family setup and village context, a woman found to have worn condoms is perceived [as] unfaithful, “Chamvula is quoted as saying.

Thus, at best, female condoms remain a minefield in Malawi’s largely conservative society, tilting the SRH scales against women. Yet, the National Strategic Plan [2011-16] indicates that Malawi has a gender equality index of 0.374, an indication of the despairing inequalities between men and women.

The Mulanje and Lilongwe women may, however, be neglecting what could be regarded as a precious resource in other countries. Reports indicate that some women have been re-using the female condom, in part due to its scarcity and in part because of the high cost of such condoms.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report titled ‘The Safety and Feasibility of Female Condom Reuse: Report of a WHO Consultation’, women in other parts of the world struggle to access condoms.

The report, which was published in 2002 after a meeting convened in Geneva, Switzerland, between January 28 and 29, reads in part: “Many women face difficulties in negotiating the use of male condoms. The female condom may, therefore, be an important option to assist women in protecting themselves and their partners from both unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

“Some women have reported using the same female condom for multiple sex acts, a behaviour said to be motivated by the high cost or limited availability of the device as well as by its perceived strength. Such practices may expose women or their partners to pathogens during washing or subsequent reuse of the female condom, especially for populations living in areas of high STI [Sexually Transmitted Infections]/HIV prevalence.”

Thus, in response to requests for advice on the practice of reuse of the female condom, WHO and UNAIDS convened an experts’ consultation meeting in June 2000 on the safety and feasibility of multiple uses of a single female condom.

The consultation concluded with the recognition of the need for risk-reduction strategies for women who may be at risk of unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

“The consultation determined that currently available evidence regarding the safety of reuse was not conclusive and that re-use of a single female condom could not be recommended. However, the panel also recognised the urgent need to provide guidance to women who may currently be reusing the female condom. It was agreed that used female condoms should be disinfected before being washed and handled in order to reduce the risk of exposure to HIV and other pathogens,” reads part of the report.

Following the meeting, a draft protocol for safe preparation of used FCs for additional use, based on theoretical considerations regarding disinfection, washing, drying, storage and re-lubrication, was formulated.

By July 2009, only 3 out of 100 women were using female condoms in Malawi, according to the United Nations Population Fund. This sharply contradicted the percentage of men who were using condoms at the time [45 percent].

But, maybe, things may change. This is because Malawi has, since 2012, been joining the world in commemorating the Global Female Condom Day.

Which is good, but not good enough— considering that Malawi is still recording 48, 000 new HIV infections annually and the unmet need for contraceptives is at around 26 percent. Studies have demonstrated that bringing female condoms to the mix of available prevention methods leads into increased rates of protected sex acts.

Therefore, without embracing interventions such as FC use, women may continue to dance to the tune of men.

Whatever the case, it is like, in the world of both men and women, only the man officially exists.

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