Page last updated at 16:09 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 17:09 UK

Condoms help tackle Indian taboos

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

Saroj says her husband accepts the idea of a female condom

In a large field in a village just a few hours' drive east of India's capital, Delhi, a group of women sing as they chop stalks of millet, a coarse grain used across the region to make bread.

After they finish, they pack it into bundles and place them on their heads to be taken home.

It is a traditional, even idyllic, rural setting.

But this community is at the centre of a radical government initiative aimed at controlling the spread of Aids.

For some time now, India's National Aids Control Organisation (Naco) has been working on new strategies to tackle the disease among some of India's most marginalised and vulnerable communities.

So for the past few months, the women of Mohammadpur have been encouraged to use the female condom.

It is a move that initially raised eyebrows. This is, after all, a conservative part of the country, where women are rarely in control of their lives.


But instead, I find them completely open about discussing the topic with me, an urban male - something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Woman carrying millet.
Women in rural India often have little control over their lives

One of the village women, Saroj, has three children. For her, the condom was an important element, not just in protecting her from Aids and other diseases, but also as a contraceptive.

"I found it very convenient to use," she says, as she sits with her friends sipping tea.

"I found this better than the male condom or other female contraceptives. There is no pain or discomfort in using this.

"At first my husband was not sure about it but now even he's come around," she says, grinning.

Narayan Kaur is a health worker who lives in the village and has been teaching the women how to use the condom.

We've got a sense of freedom, of being liberated. We feel completely in control
"At first these women found the concept of a female condom amusing," she says.

"They even laughed at it. But now they like it. They keep asking me to give them more and more of these.

"I've told them that it not only prevents Aids but is better for their sexual health."

"It's completely changed our lives," says another of the village women, Sarita.

"We've got a sense of freedom, of being liberated. We feel completely in control."

High risk

Manoj Gopalakrishnan is the CEO of Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT), the social marketing company that is in charge of the government's condom campaign.

Female condom packet.
The women say the female condom gives them a sense of freedom.
"We first began marketing the female condom primarily among sex workers three years ago," he says.

"We then decided to introduce this among rural women, since they are also a vulnerable group with little access to public health services.

"Initially, we thought the response would be poor but in fact it's been very, very good."

But the national Aids body is also targeting another high risk group - India's large, underground gay community.

They are now working on developing a condom aimed specifically at male sexual partners.

It is a radical move in a country where homosexual sex is illegal and where, as a result, many Indian gay men are forced to conceal their sexual identity from the community and to meet in secret locations.

So a plush basement apartment in a south Delhi neighbourhood doubles up as a hangout for the capital's gay men.

From the outside it is a non-descript, even shabby, building.

Inside, I find a beautifully decorated apartment with deep red walls, a fish tank and a large wall-mounted flat screen television set.

It's all very well to come out with a gay condom, but why not change the law?

Young men lounge on floor cushions covered with a leopard skin pattern, as Bollywood music plays over the large speakers.

The gay condom finds swift approval.

"It'll really help us because the existing ones are not effective," says Bobby, who was 18 when he found out he was gay. He still lives with his wife although his family is fully supportive of his lifestyle.

Cultural taboos

But the irony is not lost on them.

"On the one hand, a government body is promoting sexual health among us but on the other, we are penalised for expressing our sexuality," says Bobby.

Another man, Piyush, says: "Since homosexuality is illegal in the eyes of the law, we are frequently harassed by the police.

Even companies that already make similar condoms do not brand them as gay condoms
Manoj Gopalakrishnan

"It's all very well to come out with a gay condom, but why not change the law?"

It is this contradiction which has forced the authorities to tread carefully.

So the gay condom will only be distributed over a peer network and through volunteer groups rather than being made available at chemists.

"We will not be calling this a gay condom," says Mr Gopalakrishnan.

"Even companies that already make similar condoms available through the retail network do not brand them as gay condoms. They call them Super Strong condom, or Powerful Condom, or Stud Condoms."

There are more than two-and-a-half million Indians living with HIV or Aids, more than in any other country apart from South Africa and Nigeria.

This has made the authorities even more aware of the pressing need to tackle the problem.

But they also have to contend with India's cultural sensitivities.

Despite this, they are pressing on - and in the process, helping break down some long-held taboos.

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