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Zambian first Lady Maureen Mwanawasa

Zambian first Lady Maureen Mwanawasa hands out condoms in Lusaka

Zambian first Lady Maureen Mwanawasa is encouraging women  to demand safer sex from their partners, not negotiate for it. Mrs Mwanawasa recently made the statement at the launch of the FC2 female condom campaign at the Lusaka City Market, handing out condoms to the public.

“Negotiating for safer sex is a term that has become accepted world wide, yet, it puts a woman at the mercy of a man,” Mrs Mwanawasa told the Lusaka market crowd. “I do not believe that a woman should negotiate for safer sex, but demand safer sex.”

Mrs Mwanawasa added that safer sex is achievable if leaders, and women themselves, take up the challenge. Mrs Mwanawasa’s statements point out how important women’s empowerment and gender equality is to reducing the escalating numbers of women living with HIV.

With World AIDS Day just less than a month away, the new product is a welcome addition to the market in the country. Zambia, like other countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa, is struggling to cope with the impact of HIV/AIDS. Women are the hardest hit.

At the end of 2005, UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation estimated that in Zambia 17 percent of people aged 15-49 years old were living with HIV or AIDS. Of these million adults, 57 percent were women. Young women aged 15-19 are around six times more likely to be living with HIV than are males of the same age.

One of the reasons for greater vulnerability is gender inequality. Women disproportionately bear the burden of poverty and continue to be victims of widespread and persistent discrimination in all areas of life. They are also the primary agents of child welfare and put their lives at risk every time they become pregnant.

Zambian gender activists hold that women also play an indispensable role in the management of natural resources, economic development, and education. They have the right to gain as much as men from the benefits brought by globalisation. If not addressed, HIV/AIDS will make it even harder for women to play their role in the development of the country.

The first lady took time hand out free samples of the female condom and talk to the pressing market crowd, made of mostly women, to explain the advantages of using protective measures during sex. Her actions should be an example in the country, and the region as a whole, to inspire both individuals and leaders to ensure protection of women.

“Our first lady must be commended for the job well done, it is the first to happen in Zambia where the first lady goes to mix with women from the densely populated areas and distribute the condoms herself, women must emulate her,” said one of the recipients of condoms at the market.

In Zambia, women often have very limited opportunities to demand safer sex, due to unequal power relationships within relationships. Interventions are rarely designed to be more user-friendly, accessible and available to them. Designing products made for women is one way to assist women to demand safer sex.

Producers of the newly launched FC2 condom say that it is a better version of the other female condoms currently on the market and urge women to take advantage of the product.

The UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) resident representative Deji Popoola, who was present at the launch and distribution of female condoms, said the condoms would be available on the market. Mr Popoola called on men to support women’s rights and gender equality, especially when it come reproductive health.

Two hundred thousands condoms are available for free distribution. Yet, urban women are at a greater advantage, as such things as condoms are much more easily found in the cities and towns. For rural women, these condoms are unlikely to be within easy reach.

Ms Mwanawasa, who is also the president of the Organisation of African First Ladies (OAFLA) against HIV/AIDS, has taken the lead in empowering women to stand up for their rights. OAFLA’s key strategy is to promote the development of effective strategies to empower women and address issues of gender inequality, as well as challenge gender norms that predisposed women to infection.

Unless governments and service providers address these gender inequalities, it will be difficult for women to protect themselves. First Lady Maureen Mwanawasa has pointed out that it is time for women “to demand the protection and equality that is their right.”

By Violet Mengo. Ms Mengo writes for the Daily Mail in Zambia and is a member of the Gender and Media Southern African (GEMSA) Network.