A shortage of free female condoms in public hospitals in Kenya's Coast Province is compromising the ability of women to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Female condoms are available in private hospitals and pharmacies in the province, but at a cost of up to US$5 - five times the cost of a male condom - they are too expensive for most women.
"With the current financial crunch and famine being experienced across the country, it would sound ridiculous for a woman to go buy a condom and in the end sleep on an empty stomach," said Lorina Kagosha, coordinator of the AIDS Population and Health Integrated Assistance Programme, funded by USAID.
Sex workers are among those affected by the shortage. Lucy Wakesho works at a truck stop at Voi, a town along the road between the capital, Nairobi, and the coastal city of Mombasa. She told IRIN/PlusNews that the female condom was a key part of her business.
"Whenever I notice the lack of interest to wear a condom in men, I put on mine," she said. "It gives me an assurance of some safety instead of risking with someone who would contemplate pulling off his condom during intercourse with an aim of sleeping with me without protection."
Dr Anisa Omar, the provincial public health and sanitation officer, said the government was trying to find a solution. "We have been aware of the current shortage of female condoms in most of our facilities in the region, and we do understand the urgency of the matter - the government is working on ways of addressing the issue."
|Unlike the male condom, which was outrightly accepted by men, most women showed less interest in the female condom when it was first introduced|
She said the shortage could partly be attributed to the fact that demand at the coast had picked up over the past three years, where NGOs and women's rights groups had been making women aware of the female condom.
"Unlike the male condom, which was outrightly accepted by men, most women showed less interest in the female condom when it was first introduced to the public until, probably, three years ago," she said. "The reason given by most women was that it produced some sort of noise, thus making sex uncomfortable, especially to women themselves."
According to the National AIDS Control Council, the government imported more than 200,000 female condoms in 2007 but only 10,000 were used, whereas an estimated 144 million male condoms were used.
The UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV and AIDS Kenya country progress report for 2008 described the uptake of female condoms as a failure, and noted that nothing had been done to turn the situation around. The report recommended that the female condom be aggressively promoted.