Why condom use is low, especially among women

The female condom.

In the vibrant enclave of Mirema Drive, Kasarani, affectionately known as 'Little Las Vegas' in Kenya, the air is electric with music, laughter and the promise of romance.

At the heart of this vibrant scene stands Valerie Wairimu (22), a vision of allure amidst the thronging crowds. Tall, fair-skinned and exquisitely curvaceous, she moves with confidence, accompanied by Kevin, her companion for the night, who clutches a bottle of whisky. As they weave their way through the sea of revellers, their destination becomes clear - a nearby pharmacy. But as they approach, Kevin hesitates, leaving Valerie alone to confront the pharmacist.

"I'd like two femidoms, please," Valerie asks, surprising the male attendant, who sheepishly admits that they're out of stock. Femidom is the name given to female condoms.

Undeterred, Valerie reflects on the incredulous looks of those around her and ponders the perceptions of female condoms. With determination in her eyes, she continues her desperate search for this vital form of protection.

"I don't understand why everyone in the queue looked at me so strangely, female condoms are made for women, not trees. No?" she asks the Nation reporter, before allowing us to join her in her desperate search for female condoms.

Over the course of the night, she and Kevin move from one pharmacy to another, each one echoing the same refrain of scarcity and indifference.

Last year, according to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS 2022), only 37 per cent of women in the country used a condom during sex with a non-cohabiting partner, compared to 68 per cent of men.

As the Nation accompanies Valerie to the next pharmacy next door to the first, Kevin seems very restless.

"I can't go around looking for condoms," he announces. "When you find them, come to the BnB," he tells Valerie as he walks away.

Valerie is upset.

"That is the problem with men, all they want is sex and they never think about what women have to consider before having sex. I love myself and to be honest I only enjoy his company for sex. I don't get involved because I find it boring. So I have to protect myself," she reveals.

I ask her why she specifically looks for female condoms.

"They are also called femidoms or internal condoms because they are used deep inside the vagina. I like them because they are soft," Valerie explains, adding that she doesn't trust the quality of male condoms these days.

"I have friends who got pregnant on campus even after their boyfriends used condoms. I think the demand for male condoms is so high that the manufacturers are now supplying substandard products.

She went to five pharmacies in all, but none had what she wanted.

"I'm sorry madam, the last time I sold a female condom was early last year, if I remember correctly, and since many people don't buy them," says Agnes, a pharmacist. "I stopped stocking them.

I talk to Agnes for a moment and learn that her condom sales have been quite low for the past two years.

"Condom prices have gone up recently. It's now more expensive than ever to have safe sex, and so many young men come here to buy Postinor-2s (P2s) because they are more concerned about preventing pregnancy than preventing sexually transmitted diseases and HIV," she says.

For clarity and insight, the Nation turns to Joy Ogingo, a reproductive health worker in KIsumu. Her words resonate with a sobering truth, highlighting the misconceptions and cultural barriers that hinder the adoption of the Femidom.

"There is a common misconception that condom use reduces sexual pleasure for both partners. This belief can prevent people from using condoms, especially during intimate moments, despite evidence that properly used condoms do not significantly reduce pleasure," said the clinical researcher.

Another major reason why women avoid the femidom is the length of time it takes to insert it before sex.

"When you try to teach young women, they start telling you how time-consuming it is to put it on, and they want to know who's going to wait 30 minutes for it to conform to the vaginal wall," Joy told the Nation.

Joy believes that to address the issues surrounding female condoms, comprehensive sex education programmes should be implemented that focus on use and address myths and misconceptions.

"In addition, ensuring easy access to free or low-cost condoms through distribution programmes and community outreach can help increase use among young people. It's also important to involve young people in the design and implementation of initiatives to make them more relevant and effective."

As dawn breaks, Valerie's resolve remains unshaken. With determination, she leads the charge into the heart of Nairobi's bustling CBD, hoping against hope for a glimmer of success.

But even amidst the bustling streets and neon-lit alleyways, the search proves futile. In fact, one vendor tells her he has no idea what a female condom is and never knew it existed. The absence of female condoms is a stark reminder of the uphill battle for accessibility and awareness.

As Valerie's journey comes to an end on this World Condom Day, her quest is a rallying cry for change - a reminder that the fight for reproductive rights is far from over. In the shadows of nightlife and revelry, she carries on the hope for a world where protection is not a privilege, but a universal right.