Plain speaking: bringing condoms into the open

“I want to make it in the corporate world,” says 19-year-old Millicent, known as Milly. A marketing major at the University of Botswana, she exudes sophistication and self-confidence.

Milly has not always felt so confident about making the right decisions. She has not always felt able to protect herself from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, or from unintended pregnancy. She was embarrassed to be seen to be sexually active and didn’t feel comfortable taking free condoms at the government clinic. And her boyfriend, Peter, felt self-conscious buying condoms at the pharmacy so they didn’t always have protected sex.

Milly says people tend to link condom use with promiscuity. “There’s a stereotype about teenagers using condoms,” she explains. “Condoms are said to be for adults. People don’t want to talk about them.” At the clinic, “You couldn’t just go in and take one,” she explains. “You were criticized because you were young and wanted condoms.”

Milly’s parents gave her only the most general information about preventing HIV, even though her father is a physician. Cultural norms in Botswana inhibit parents and children from talking openly about sex; it is assumed that if teenagers know about condoms, “they will want to experiment,” says Milly. She and Peter read a little about condoms, but they were still unsure how to use them. “We knew we were taking risks,” she says.

Milly and Peter belong to the age group, 15–24-year-olds, most at risk of HIV infection and UNAIDS reports that females 15–24 years old are twice as likely as males to be living with HIV.  Kabo Ngombe of Botswana’s Ministry of Health says that a reluctance to talk about condoms is one reason why more young people do not use them. “A lot of people know about HIV and prevention methods, but they’re not changing their behaviour,” she says. “Young people lack role models. Their parents can’t talk to them about HIV. They prefer to learn from other young people.”

This is what happened to Milly. One day she saw a brightly painted truck moving slowly down the road with the word CONDOMIZE! painted on its side, surrounded by a lively young crowd. Standing in the bed of the truck were other young people, all wearing sleek black T-shirts with the words “Love Smart! Play Safe! CONDOMIZE!” blazoned across the front in electric pink. They wore bright pink hard hats on their heads. Rock music played as they warmly invited passers-by to step up and learn about condoms.

“This truck was really pulling a crowd!” says Milly. “I wanted to know who these people were and what they were doing in our community. It turned out they were educating young people about how to use condoms! And these were young people just like me! As a teenager, I want another teenager to give me information, not someone who criticizes me. This was really great!”

To date, this truck and a smaller one like it have covered some 2000 kilometres throughout Botswana. They are a major feature of the country’s CONDOMIZE! campaign, launched in June 2014 by the United Nations Population Fund and the Condom Project to draw attention to condoms in a user-friendly, welcoming, fun way that attracts young people like Milly. The young people on the truck were among 35 local volunteers trained to educate their peers about condoms. Botswana is one of six African countries where CONDOMIZE! campaigns have been going on since 2011.

The truck pulled up in a park where a table covered with bright displays of condoms had been set up, and the crowd continued to grow. The CONDOMIZE! team passed out baskets full of colourful condoms and packets of water-based lubricant, encouraging everyone to help themselves. “It was amazing!” says Milly “I didn’t know colourful condoms existed!” The condoms she saw that day came in many varieties as well as colours, different sizes and textures (ribbed, studded with little bumps, etc.), different thicknesses and appealing scents (banana, strawberry, chocolate), and had attractive packaging. By contrast, the free government condoms come in one size, shape and colour: orange. They are considered inferior because they are not branded and people say they smell bad and break easily.

But the new condoms went like hot cakes. “I took a lot,” Milly says with a giggle. “It was so much fun! Everybody was very surprised, very impressed and very happy to have such a campaign coming to educate them, to give them free condoms!”

Nowadays, Milly and Peter use condoms consistently and correctly, including the female condom, which was new to them. They enjoy the variety of textures, colours and scents, as well as the lubricants, which they didn’t know about before. Milly has come across other CONDOMIZE! events since then, and she is well-supplied with condoms.

Original article available at UNAIDS.org