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How Ethiopia is reinventing the condom

condoms1Catwalks featuring models wearing dresses made from condoms, and cafes handing out coffee-flavored condoms are part of a rebranding exercise in Ethiopia to get African men and women excited – rather than disgusted – by prophylactics, writes Judy Mandelbaum.

One of the biggest hurdles facing anyone trying to promote safe sex in Africa is the persistence of taboos on condoms. There as elsewhere, people regard them as ugly, smelly, uncomfortable, possibly immoral, and in any case deeply embarrassing.

So what better way to get African men and women excited about condoms than by rebranding what is currently regarded as a necessary evil as the height of fashion – and as a tasty treat besides?

Condoms on the catwalk 

As reported by IRIN/PlusNews, DKT International, an American family planning and anti-AIDS charity, has been taking the lead in creative measures to popularize condom use worldwide.

In January, DKT joined with Ethiopia’s Zalef Fine Art and Fashion Design Institute to organize the “Condom Clothes Fashion Show” at the Addis Ababa Hilton.

Models took to the runway wearing ten dresses made entirely out of a total of 10,000 brightly colored condoms. Accessories included hats, table flowers, and even decorative lollypops.

Under the slogan “Abstain, Be Faithful and Use Condoms,” the show was designed to shatter taboos and make condom use appear acceptable and even fun, if not necessarily fashionable.

According to Emebet Abu, DKT Ethiopia's head of communications, “The idea of the show was to target young people, who like fashion and design. We also teach abstinence and to be faithful, but some young people will not abstain or be faithful; they may have more than one partner already so they must use condoms.” 

DKT has been pioneering contraceptive use in Ethiopia since 1989, ensuring that condoms are available throughout the country at affordable prices.

It calls its approach “contraceptive social marketing,” which it defines as “using commercial techniques and the commercial infrastructure to provide low-cost contraceptives and information to people who need it.”

Last year it handed out 18 million free condoms in the capital alone. (A recent health report shows that HIV/AIDS rates in Ethiopia range from 2% in rural areas and up to 11.3% in towns and cities, making it one of the continent's most deeply afflicted countries.)

Thanks in part to DKT’s efforts, from 2000 to 2005 condom use in Ethiopia increased from 30.3 percent to 51.9 percent among men from 13.4 percent to 23.6 percent among women. This has not been an easy task, since the charity has had to contend with both a highly conservative Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which denounces sex before marriage, and a large Muslim population, whose religion also demands abstinence and sexual purity.

That is why fun, fashion, and above all imagination have been the keys to success.

Would you like a coffee with that condom?

Coffee is the national drink of Ethiopia and a source of tremendous pride. So back in September of 2007, DKT introduced the world’s first coffee-flavored condom (complete with milk and sugar) to Ethiopia under the “Sensation” brand as a way of counteracting frequent complaints about the bitter latex smell of normal varieties.

The macchiato-flavored “coffee condoms” are sold in the cafés of Addis Ababa and cost 1 birr for a three-pack, making them one of the cheapest brands on the market. The charity reported selling 300,000 in its first week. 

In 2008, support from DKT and British reproductive health care organization Marie Stopes International allowed Hayat Ahmed (26), a former Miss Ethiopia and UN HIV/AIDS ambassador, to open her Bellissima Café in Addis Ababa.

Alongside traditional Ethiopian macchiato and soft drinks, Ahmed hands out free packages of “Sensation” condoms to her customers. She serves her coffee in “Sensation” cups and her waitresses wear “Sensation” T-shirts.

Achmed is thinking of setting up new franchises of her condom café throughout Africa. In a local commercial advertising her café and its special service, Achmed says: 

Before people don’t want to hear about condoms - they steal condoms - and the usage of condoms. But on the other hand if you put condom in private places and the toilet and when you check at the end of the day it’s empty, people are used to everything else behind closed doors so if you give them free condoms, or we make condoms available everywhere for free, I think they will be happy to take it. 

Marie Stopes International is working to open an additional twelve condom cafés in Ethiopia.

 "Condoms and Kerosene" 

But not all of DKT’s programs are as “tasty” as the coffee scheme. Sometimes they’re merely sad – if urgently necessary.

Last May DKT, working together with the French TOTAL petroleum corporation, launched a two-month “Condoms and Kerosene” program at a filling station on the edge of Addis Abeba. There, women were given free condoms and a brief demonstration on how to use them.

The awareness campaign was aimed at domestic workers, nearly all of them female, who move to the city from the countryside and suffer extreme exploitation at the hands of their employers. 

You see, what “abstinence only” campaigners from the US fail to comprehend is that, as a rule, African women are not “promiscuous” by choice or as the result of an informed decision. 

According to Tsehay Tura, a domestic worker interviewed by IRIN who is herself infected with HIV, “many are coming from rural areas and they do not have awareness; many are sexually active with guards and are also frequently raped by their masters or their master's children.” 

A high percentage of them eventually end up as part-time and even fulltime sex workers. Once they are employed in homes or as prostitutes, they have no time to inform themselves about safe sex and their own rights. 

This is why the filling station, where the women regularly buy kerosene for cooking and heating, is the only place to reach them.

 According to DKT, the project reached 14,000 men and women and distributed over 35,000 condoms.  

The success that DKT and other charities have had in Africa demonstrates once more that an ounce of imagination and local sensitivity can easily outweigh a ton of ham-handed “foreign aid.”

Judy Mandelbaum, a regular contributor to Open Salon and other blogs, is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Drawing on her years of experience in overseas development and equality issues, this compulsive writer and backpacker is always on the lookout for the stories that tell us who we really are and not just what we would like to believe about ourselves.


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