condomsTwo regular women, probably in their late 30s to early 40s, clad in jeans and colorful blouses, walk into a pharmacy chatting cheerfully. The pharmacist and cashier are too busy to assist them so they look around for the product they want, but seem to struggle to locate it. Eventually, one of them calls out to the cashier, “excuse me, do you sell condoms?” Everyone in the pharmacy freezes and there is a deathly silence.

“Over there,” the cashier eventually replies.

The two ladies, who seem like intelligent, decent professionals to me, walk over to where the condoms are located and make their selection, even debating about the brand and product attributes.

“Durex is the better known brand,” one of them is overheard saying.

“But this one has fruity flavors and the ribbed design,” the other argues.

Eventually, they count about 10, combining the two brands and the qualities they want before proceeding to the till to pay. After the purchase, the cashier asks her colleague for a plastic bag to “pack the ummm.” The colleague passes a tiny plastic bag that cannot  contain the wide variety of colorful condoms. The cashier remarks that they can’t fit in the tiny plastic, and her colleague resentfully throws her a bigger bag. She first packs the condoms, rather furtively, in the smaller plastic, then into the bigger bag, clearly to hide them from the sight of anyone who will meet the two women. The two ladies politely thank the cashier, take their package and leave, unperturbed.

My friend and I happen to be in the pharmacy and witnessed all this. As casual observers, we cannot not help but notice the silence and attitude surrounding the condom purchase. We are served in silence and also leave. It seemed the purchase of condoms has colored the mood in the previously lively pharmacy.

On leaving the pharmacy, we can’t resist discussing the incident. I ask my friend if she’d noticed that the cashier could not even say the word “condom.” She had asked for a plastic bag to pack the “ummm,” as if saying the word embarrassed her!

My friend remarks that the demeanor of the three employees in the pharmacy clearly deters women from purchasing condoms. This triggers a discussion on the dilemma faced by women in taking charge of their sexual and reproductive health.

For a moment, we put ourselves in those two ladies’ shoes and wonder how we would have reacted if we had been the ones on the receiving end. There are many reasons for buying condoms, the key ones being protection from HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI) as well birth control either within or outside marriage. It is possible that perhaps the two ladies are charity workers who want to distribute them to other women for their protection, or they could be HIV/AIDS activists who are going to use them for demonstrations to empower other women, or they could have been sent by their brothers. We’ll never know why they had to buy the condoms. We can only speculate.

However, whatever the reason, my friend and I are impressed that these women have taken their health into their hands and are willing to protect themselves, even at the risk of being judged by broader society.

Clearly these are well educated women who know what is at stake and understand their vulnerability to HIV infection and STIs. It is a well known fact that women and girls are at higher risk of HIV and STIs.

According to the Zimbabwe’s country report in the Global AIDS Response Progress Report 2016, the HIV epidemic in the country remains generalized, feminized and homogenous and continues to decline in new infection rates, prevalence and AIDS related mortality.

Zimbabwe, with a projected population of 13 million people, is among the countries in
Sub-Saharan Africa worst affected by the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Although the country’s HIV prevalence at 14.7 per cent in 2016, has been gradually declining, it is still high and is ranked the fifth highest globally. Women bear the brunt of the epidemic, constituting about 790,000 – more than half – of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV in the country.

To illustrate women’s vulnerability to STIs, the Zimbabwe Population based HIV Impact Assessment (Zimphia) recently reported that among adults ages 15 to 64 years in Zimbabwe, 3.0 percent of females and 2.4 percent of males have ever been infected with syphilis, while prevalence of active syphilis infection is 1.0 percent among females and 0.6 percent among males ages 15 to 64 years.

All these figures are staggering, despite the reported declines in prevalence.

On the other hand, assuming the women we encountered in this scenario had not bought condoms and got infected with an STI by an unfaithful partner, what was likely to happen?

Admittedly, our society associates certain diseases with immorality and STIs fall within that bracket, so the reaction to infection is quite predictable.

The woman could seek treatment. However, public health facilities are notorious for abusing and judging people, particularly women who turn up with an STI.

The alternative would be to go to a private doctor, but what are the costs and how affordable is it?

The likely scenario would be to live with the “siki” as it is known locally and suffer in silence because one is too embarrassed to seek medical attention or face judgment from an unforgiving society.

Indeed it’s really sad that women are judged for buying condoms to protect themselves from HIV and STI, yet when they contract diseases after failing to protect themselves, society still judges them.

It is worth noting that the decline in prevalence in both HIV and STIs, has also been partially attributed to condom use among other factors.

“Reduction in new infections is attributed to reduction in sexual partners and increase condom use in risk sexual relationship. Similar behavioral change pattern has been observed through cross sectional studies among sex workers and other key populations,” the Global AIDS Response Progress Report states.

Given this scenario, I believe any woman who is seen buying condoms, regardless of whether it’s the male or female one, should be congratulated for playing her part in preventing HIV infection and contributing towards the decline in HIV and STI prevalence. Such women are obviously responsible citizens.

References:

Global AIDS Response Progress Report 2016 http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/country/documents/ZWE_narrative_report_2016.pdf

Zimbabwe Population based HIV Impact Assessment (Zimphia)http://phia.icap.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ZIMBABWE-Factsheet.FIN_.pdf

 

 

 

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