Note: To the non-South African readers, “shot” in SA is slang for thank you.
For as long as I can remember, the South African government has provided free condoms. As children, before we even had an idea of what sex really was, we knew that condoms were free and easily accessible. Even so, (especially as girls) we were prohibited from speaking/asking about them or filling them up with water to make water balloons like the boys did. We only knew what they were for because of the illustrations for directions for their correct use.
As I grew older the taboo around speaking about condoms was even more present. Somehow girls who were openly or secretly sexually active never seemed to have any condoms of their own – not in their purses, pockets nor their rooms. There was (and still is) an unspoken code about young womxn and condoms. Being in possession of condoms meant that one was sexually active for one (which because of notions of purity being closely tied with virginity, made that an instant crime), for some it was also a sign of promiscuity, and boldly proclaiming it.
My worry at the time was that if womxm were in sexual relationships but did not carry condoms because of the stigma attached to womxn who purchase, or request the state-provided condoms, how were we meant to meant to be in control of our bodies. Social media has recently been flooded with South Africans urging the government that free condoms are not a necessity but rather that free sanitary pads are. Statistics show that in South Africa over 3 million girls were missing a significant amount of learning in school because of the lack of access to sanitary pads. The basis of the argument made by these lobbyists is that sex is a choice while menstruation is not.
While I am in full support of the initiative to provide free sanitation pads, this is an argument which I do not buy because of its ill-conceived and oversimplified reality of the lack of agency and choice for womxn in sexual relationships. This is the reality for young sexually active South Africans in the context of a country which is torn by ‘the biggest and most high profile HIV epidemic in the world’ (South Africa), alarming rates of gender-based violence, socio-economic inequalities and inadequate sexual health education.
I recently watched a documentary including a group of young womxn in the Western Cape who mentioned that their partners refused to use condoms for a number of reasons – many of which were based on a significant lack of knowledge about safe and healthy sex, myths, and ill-percieved notions about love and faithfulness. One of the womxn mentioned that her partner refused even the state-provided condoms on the basis that the packaging made them look cheap and that they had a bad smell. Something as seemingly arbitrary as that was the reason scores of other young couples decided to not use the state-provided condoms, hence the state’s introduction of new scented and repackaged condoms – to incentivise their use.
Another issue is blatant socio-economic inequalities in the country which prevent many womxn from knowing about and/or exploring other contraceptive methods (leaving them only with knowledge of sterilisation and the Pill which is also plagued by a myriad of myths about causing infertility, weight gain, stretch marks etc). This inequality does not only limit access to alternative contraception methods for those in poor communities but also significantly limits womxn’s bargaining power when it comes to sex and their bodies. Due to conservative attitudes about sex or normative roles of men and womxn in sex which are portrayed by culture, religion, the media, family and friends…womxn are often recipients of sex and not viewed or treated as equal agents who can contribute to the terms and conditions of sex. This means that most of the responsibility is often placed on men, the responsibility to have condoms is his too – and consequently, so is the choice to use one or not. These conservative attitudes are further entrenched when men are constantly the financial providers in these relationships (as transactional relations remain highly prevalent in South Africa) because he who has money has the power to control the recipient of that money.
When we decrease the hindrances to access to condoms for womxn, especially those who cannot afford them, we take away the stumbling blocks which prevent womxn from reclaiming agency in their sexual relationships. Although access to free condoms may not ensure that they will in fact be used, it does, however, leave less womxn in the position whereby they continue to be entirely dependent on the partner for their safety. That being said, we shouldn’t look at state-provision for sanitary pads and condoms as an either/or situation because while millions of girls miss about 25% of class because of their period, a significant amount also misses school as a result of having to drop out because of unplanned pregnancies or having to head households where parents die from HIV/AIDS.
We should be lobbying for increased collective efforts to combat the marginalisation of poor womxn in our country. Sure, womxn do not choose to have their period, but womxn who do choose to have sex should not be shamed for it, nor should they be prevented by circumstances from having access to protection from infections, diseases, and unplanned pregnancies.