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Small town women find new freedom with female condoms

Tarannum Manjul finds that a programme to get women to use the female condom in rural Uttar Pradesh is proving a success with women because it gives them more control over their lives

Even as the urban belts of India debate the use of the female condom as an effective method of family planning and prevention of HIV/AIDS, in some parts of rural Uttar Pradesh, these condoms are helping women assert their reproductive rights.

Female condoms have helped women save themselves from unwanted pregnancies as well as from HIV/AIDS. Lower class rural women are selling condoms to other women through their Self Help Groups (SHGs) and have found a new means to protect themselves. The scheme also has the support of men.

Sampooran Nagar is a small nondescript town in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh, situated on the Indo-Nepal border. Everyone in the town knows the way to the Sewa Swasthya Kendra (health facilitation centre). “Arre sewakendra, woh toh usi gali mein hui (the centre is right there in this lane),” a man says. Inside the centre run by the Navchetna Swayam Sahayta Samuh, a self help group, 15 women are seated on a huge wooden bed, while one woman sits in the centre, giving them instructions on how to use a female condom.

“It is indeed a much better way to save yourselves from unwanted pregnancies and, also, the shaher wali bimari (AIDS),” says Rama Devi, the head of the SHG who is in charge of the centre. Amidst giggles and questions from her audience, Rama Devi describes the use of the female condom and manages to sell three pieces.

“Although female condoms are costlier than their male counterparts, we have been able to sell some 60 pieces in the last three months,” Rama Devi says.

The female condoms are imported from the UK and sold at a subsidised rate of Rs 2 per piece as against the regular male condom that costs Rs 5 for three pieces. In the past year, the SHG has managed to sell over 1,000 female condoms, with women trying to save money to buy condoms whenever their husbands, who are working in cities, come home on holidays. Apart from being more expensive, these condoms are much bigger and are uncomfortable for women, and can be used just once and then disposed of. “Yet women are buying it because they feel that they can protect themselves from HIV and unwanted pregnancies without asking their men for anything,” says Rama Devi.

Set up in 2006 by Rahi Foundation, a non-government organisation working in women's health and rights in Lakhimpur Kheri district, the medical aid and female condom centres were established in Sampooran Nagar as part of an HIV/AIDS and female condom promotion programme supported by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), New Delhi. These centres were established in 80 blocks of Pallia and Nighasan, using the SHGs formed by the state government as support groups. The centres are not only making women aware about female condoms and ways to prevent HIV/AIDS, but also giving them basic knowledge about hygiene and general health.

Rahi Foundation supplied a medical kit called the Suvidha kit, which consists of antiseptic, bandages, oral rehydration therapy, iron and multi-vitamin tablets, female condoms and a manual (‘Mahila condom: ek dirdarshika’). The women are trained to use the kit. “We could not tell them straight out that they were at risk of HIV and should therefore be using condoms, so the kit was a good idea to break the ice,” said Ruchi, the field co-ordinator.

The SHGs were selected on the basis of their involvement in various government projects. The women who promoted the condoms were those who had a say in the community. Rama Devi of the Navchetna group is also known as the ‘badi bhabhi’ (elder sister-in-law) of the area. “Initially, women came to the centre with complaints that the condoms are uncomfortable and expensive too,” says Ruchi. But when they got support from the men, they agreed to buy them. “Our menfolk do not like using condoms. So when we asked them about using one for ourselves, they readily agreed,” said Anita, one of the regulars at the centre. For the men, it was obvious that this condom was not putting any burden on them.

Deviprasad, a shopkeeper in the village, was all praise for the female condom. “Now, no one tells us how we need to plan children. It’s an ‘all-women’ task now.” Though the project came to an end in March 2007, the centre continues to sell the condoms which they have in stock. “In the last three months, the 40 blocks of Palia sold 470 condoms,” said Ruchi.

Dinesh Sharma of Rahi Foundation said that DFID had supplied them with over 2,000 condoms and they still have a stock. “But though the project has been able to make a significant change in the lives of women, and has a lot of takers here, lack of further funding may result in the project coming to an end very soon. We are finding it difficult to make ends meet for our field workers,” said Sharma.

Sunil Singh of Rahi Foundation says that there is a constant need for working on the reproductive and child health needs of the women in this area. “Being situated in the farthest district of the state, it is obvious that even government support is slow in coming to Lakhimpur Kheri. Also, there is a big gap between the supply and demand of services, and women SHGs are proving to be quite successful in filling this gap. The need is for regular projects and programmes that will strengthen these SHGs.”

(Tarannum Manjul is a development journalist based in Uttar Pradesh, writing on gender, human rights, health, the environment and other related issues)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008

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