Free Femidoms free women

Bridget Hilton-Barber

“Have you seen the Femidoms?” asked my travel mate. We were at Platjan Border Post, between Botswana and South Africa, returning from a road trip. “Nah,” I replied. “But I once saw Femi Kuti – the Nigerian musician, you know, son of the famous …”

“Female condoms, you idiot,” he said. “Right there, next to the male ones, in the big box that says ‘For Free’.”

I must confess I had only ever heard of female condoms, or Femidoms as they’re trademarked, but never actually seen or used one. I certainly didn’t expect my first encounter to be at an unassuming little border post along the banks of the Limpopo River under an acacia tree.

Frankly it was also a bit embarrassing to have a man point out the free Femidoms. But to be fair, he’s a tour operator and comes through here once a month with Dutch and German groups, mainly women. They all take them as souvenirs, he says.

I took the last two left in the box. “The gals they like them,” said the Botswana border post official, stamping me out of Botswana with a resounding thump. All border posts in Botswana distribute male and female condoms.

I haven’t tried it yet – watch this space – but I have found out an interesting thing or two about the Femidom. Pioneered in the US in 1993, the Femidom is manufactured by the New York-based Female Health Company (FHC). It has since undergone much design tweaking and is proving most popular among African women.

Our pale-faced sisters in the First World shunned the Femidom. In Britain they were slammed. “Is that an amoeba between your legs?’’ ran a famous headline. “It looks like a cross between a pair of diaphragms and a male condom that might have been used as a water bomb,” said another report. One of the problems the First Worlders found was that the female condom “squeaked” during use, and that is was so “baggy”.

Femidoms are pricey and often unavailable in Europe and the US, but are distributed mainly for free by Aids NGOs in Zimbabwe, Ghana, South Africa and Botswana, as well as in other African and some South East Asian countries. In areas with high HIV prevalence and men more recalcitrant in their own condom department, the Femidom is becoming highly desirable.

In fact, in Africa the “squeak” has become a novelty. In Senegal, the female condom is now sold with an erotic accessory, “bine bine’’ beads that women wear around their hips, designed to complement the squeak. Rhythm, you know. Senagalese women, incidentally, are also bragging that the Femidom is so large because their men are so well-endowed.

The modern streamlined design is said to be proving extra-cool because the tip of the man’s penis rubs against the inside ring of the Femidom during sex, intensifying his orgasm.

In the late 1990s, Mary Ann Leeper, president of FHC, got a call from a woman called Daisy from the Zimbabwean health ministry who said she had a petition signed by 30 000 women wanting us to bring the female condom to Zimbabwe.  Here, where most HIV-positive adults are women, a new word – kaytecyenza – has been made up to describe the “tickle’’ created by the inner ring rubbing against the penis. Women too are gaining extra pleasure from the condom – mostly, I would say, in a longer lifespan.

In the Sri Lankan city of Colombo, women sex workers have marketed the Femidom as a sex toy, allowing the client to insert it – a real thrill there since seeing or touching a vagina close up is still taboo in Sri Lanka. Prostitutes are now charging more for sex with a female condom.

FHC has struck a deal with the World Heath Organisation to sell the female condom at a discount to education programmes in more than 80 developing countries, mainly those hit hardest by Aids. And here in South Africa, local television has started screening advertisements for the female condom, which is commercially available at some pharmacies under the brand name Care at R5 for two.

Recently an as-yet unpublished study in South Africa found that 80% of men liked the female condom, and the same percentage of women agreed. The men said it didn’t reduce sensation as much as a male condom, and the women said they could use it without male knowledge, insert it hours ahead of sex, and it didn’t kill the Moment of Passion. Check it out, my sisters.

Bridget Hilton-Barber is a well-known travel writer based in Limpopo province. She has worked as editor of South African Airways’ inflight magazine Sawubona, debut editor of Lowveld Living, travel correspondent for Radio 702 and travel editor of FairLady magazine. She is the author of seven books.