Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health is currently gathering evidence on acceptance of a new Cupid Female Condom before rolling it out.
The female condom is known as a 'life-saving device' that is initiated by females. Zimbabwe was among the first countries to introduce the female condom in 1997 as a woman-controlled method to prevent sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and unintended pregnancy.
"The roll-out of the female condom has been very successful in Zimbabwe and the country is rated among the highest for its female condom uptake.
Over five million female condoms are used annually," said Anna Machiha of the Ministry of Health's AIDS and TB unit. The study of the new female condom is Being conducted in partnership with UNFPA. If accepted, the Ministry will introduce it thereby widening the choice of female condoms in the public sector.
"The study seeks to assess the satisfaction and suitability of the Cupid Female Condom, learn about its advantages and disadvantages from the perspectives of its users. This includes perceptions of women regarding their ability to negotiate for its use in long term-relationships," said the UNFPA country representative in Zimbabwe.
Supply, delivery, and demonstrating use
Supply and delivery of female condoms, both in the public and social sector, is well coordinated and implemented by the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council. Deliveries are made to health facilities, universities and colleges. The female condom is distributed to retailers, pharmacies and hair salons. Service providers place them at strategic places where consumers can access them.
Given that demonstrating use of female condom is crucial - if people are confident how to use it they are more likely to use it - the government has built the capacity of service providers to ensure correct use.
Communication and information materials - including condom models to demonstrate female condom use - have been developed and are being used to raise awareness at public events such as the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair and agricultural shows.
Training of trainers among communities has also helped create awareness of the female condom and demonstrated its use. Anna (not her real name), who is a trained peer educator for women sex workers in Harare, says that condom demonstrations have proved useful. "Most of the women we trained say the female condom is safe and protects them from disease," she said.
Reaching women through hair salons
Populations Services International has been a key partner of the Ministry's female condom programme since its inception in 1997. By the end of 2014, PSI had sold over 20 million female condoms in Zimbabwe. According to Kumbirai Chatora, social marketing director of PSI-Zimbabwe, most had been sold through hair salons.
"We realised that hair salons offer a comfortable environment to talk to women about the female condom - how it gives women more control and puts them in charge of their health. It's theirs to use and insert just like a tampon," she said.
Since 2001, PSI Zimbabwe has trained female hair stylists from more than 1,500 salons in low-income areas to promote correct and consistent use of the female condom.
Challenges and Opportunities
Women's rights activists and NGOs feel that more still needs to be done to promote uptake. According to Tariro Kutadza from Development Aid from People to People, explaining to men and women about female anatomy and how the female condom works can go a long way.
Anna-Colletor Penduka, Women and AIDS Support Network, adds that low uptake is due to varied reasons depending on women's risk and vulnerability. For instance, she said, gender norms determine what women are supposed to know about sex and sexuality and this limits their ability to measure risk and ensure their own safety.
"Married women expect men to take charge, and hence find negotiating condom use difficult. However, for those who can discuss and negotiate safe sex, the female condom is empowering," she said. In some cases, she said, husbands cite lobola, or bride price, as an excuse for unsafe sexual practices.
Widening HIV prevention options for women becomes increasingly important where women are unable to negotiate male condom use. Experts say having more choice of female condoms is likely to increase safer sex practices and use of both male and female condoms.