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close this bookThe Female Condom and AIDS (UNAIDS, 1997, 8 p.)
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View the documentFacts and Figures
View the documentCan another type of condom really make a difference to the epidemic?
View the documentWhat is wrong with male condoms? Nothing, but...
View the documentThe big questions: how does it feel and what does it cost?
View the documentUNAIDS Best Practice materials

Can another type of condom really make a difference to the epidemic?

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes AIDS continues to spread in many parts of the world, and women are an increasingly large proportion of those infected. From 25% in 1990, women's proportion of the total number of adults with HIV or AIDS rose to 42% in 1995.

By the end of 1996, over 9 million women were estimated to have the virus. About 80% of them got the disease through unprotected sex with an infected male partner. (The challenges posed by women's greater physical and social vulnerability to HIV transmission through sex are described below.) The others got HIV through other means such as infected blood transfusions and injecting drugs with unclean needles.

The male condom is an indispensable part of the campaign to prevent infection by HIV, and until recently was the only "barrier" available. Today, the invention of the "female condom" offers a new barrier method which gives women more control over their bodies and couples more options for protecting themselves and their sex partners.

The female condom does not replace the male condom or any other form of protection. Instead, it doubles the arsenal of weapons available in the fight against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV. Testing in various parts of the world suggests that when it is made available to women, the female condom reduces further the number of unprotected sex acts and the transmission of STDs.

What is a female condom, exactly?

First proposed by a Danish doctor named Lasse Hessel in the mid-1980s, the female condom is now commercially available in many countries. It is manufactured by the Female Health Company through its subsidiary Chartex International of Chicago, Illinois. Brand names include Reality, Femidom and Femi.

The female condom is a soft but strong sheath made of clear polyurethane plastic. The sheath has two plastic rings at either end. The one at the closed end is used to help with insertion and to keep the condom in place against the cervix. The ring at the open end is slightly larger and remains outside the vagina, covering both the woman's genitalia and the base of the man's penis.

The condoms are equipped with a water-based lubricant which makes insertion easier and allows comfortable movement during sex. Currently, they are labelled for single-use only.

Unlike a diaphragm or an oral contraceptive, no prescription or medical help is necessary for a woman to use the female condom. It does not need to be specially fitted. The woman puts it into her vagina using her fingers, and can do so anytime from hours ahead to immediately before sex. Another practical advantage is that the female condom does not have to be removed immediately after ejaculation.