There's a product out there that can prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and, when used consistently and correctly, has a failure rate of just five percent. We're talking about the female condom, of course.
Female condoms are about as effective as male condoms, with some unique benefits of their own. Perhaps most importantly, they give heterosexual women more power over whether they use contraception during sex, which public-health researchers think could help reduce the rates of the transmission of HIV/AIDS worldwide. They can also be inserted long before sex, so there's nothing to remember in the heat of the moment.
Yet, due in part to high cost—female condoms cost about $2 to $4 each, versus 50 cents to $2.50 for male condoms—as well as complaints that they're noisy and difficult to use, female condoms remain less popular than their male counterparts. Some education programs are working to change that. In a new review, a pair of human-development researchers analyzed 20 papers about such programs, in search of lessons for future efforts.
A few of the ideas the researchers found:
- Giving women lots of choices might be helpful. One study found that women used more contraception in general when they could choose between female and male condoms than when they were given male condoms only.
- Skills training is important, one study found. Women are more likely to use female condoms if they feel they're good at it. In addition, programs can teach women not just the basics of using the condom, but also how to negotiate with a partner about using contraception.
- Those who run the programs don't have to be doctors or other health professionals. One study found peer educators work just as well, which could be a cost-saving move for programs.
Overall, the results of the studies were mixed, but generally positive. (A caveat: Each of the female condom-promoting programs the studies examined were actually quite different from each other and aimed at different people, ranging from patients at a New York City clinic to workers at a Kenyan coffee plantation. So there's a limit to how much we can pool their results.) Thirteen studies found that women who underwent female condom-promoting programs were more likely to try female condoms at least once, while two studies found the programs made women use female condoms more frequently. Three of the studies found that programs didn't increase women's use of female condoms.
Unpopular as they are, it seems, there's scope for increasing women's use of the one woman-controlled contraceptive that blocks STI transmission, too.
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