About 1.5 million female condoms will be social-marketed to sex workers in four states this year as India, with over 2.5 million HIV/AIDS patients, tries to empower women in its fight against the disease.
The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) will focus on Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh with this programme.
Sujatha Rao, director general, NACO, said a pilot project introducing female condoms to sex workers in 2007 has been a big success, and hence it was being scaled up about three- fold.
Hindustan Latex Ltd (HLL) is manufacturing the female condom for the Indian market through a technology transfer from Female Health Company, London.
The condom - the new generation of the product is known as FC2 - will be social-marketed to sex workers through NACO's 200 partner NGOs, which run targeted intervention sites for sex workers.
"The product will have 100 percent coverage in the four states and is expected to benefit a population of 200,000 sex workers," Kavitha Potturi of HLFPPT, the non-profit wing of HLL, told IANS.
Women in sex work form a core population for the HIV prevention programme in India. Unprotected sex accounts for over 86 percent of HIV infections in the country.
The female condom is the only woman-controlled device currently available to prevent HIV transmission in India. It provides protection against unintended pregnancy as well as sexually transmitted diseases.
Female Health Company, which produces the female condom used worldwide, says cost has been a major barrier in making it widely available to women at risk. FC2, the new product, has helped bring down costs.
For the first time, FC2 is being manufactured in India by HLL at its plant in Kochi, bringing the per piece cost down to Rs.23 from Rs.45 - the price of the imported product.
Under the social marketing programme, sex workers will now buy the female condom for Rs.3 instead of the Rs.5 they spent on it last year.
Rao said the programme will be scaled up further as demand increases. "The female condom is still a new product, not so easy to use. The demand for it has to be generated," she said.
The female condom aims to cover gaps in condom use by putting more control in women's hands. Women who used the product in the pilot last year said it gives them more power. Many said it helped reduce sexually transmitted infections.
Among the six states where the pilot project was conducted, it was most successful in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the first three being high HIV prevalence states.
Sex workers say although condom use with clients has increased in recent years, there is still the odd client who refuses to use one. Also, condom use is low with regular partners and husbands.
In Madurai, a sex worker in her mid-20s said insisting that husbands use condoms instigates violence and distrust. "Men ask, 'Why are you asking me to use a condom? Am I having an extramarital relationship? Or are you having one?'"
Many of the product's 'champions' are young women who say the female condom has come to their rescue in ensuring safety. Partner approval has been critical in making it possible for them to use it, women say.