The female condom is a loose-fitting polyurethane sheath that is 17 centimetres long with a flexible ring at each end. It is the only available method that women and girls can initiate and in some ways control that protects against both unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. In this regard it is an important supplement to the male condom. Because of economic, social and gender inequalities, women are often ill-placed to make their partners use condoms, particularly within marriage.
Women's advocates have long argued for the development of a safe contraceptive method that women can initiate and control. Based on their work with women who, in some places, have been asking for a method to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections, women's health advocates encouraged the development of methods that women can control, that do not rely upon the assistance of a health-care provider for use, and that are immediately reversible. In international meetings since 1991, women's organizations also emphasized the need to develop contraceptives that are non-systemic and do not produce the side-effects often associated with hormonal methods such as oral contraceptives, injectables, and implants.
In 1993 the United States Food and Drug Administration granted permission to market and distribute the female condom. WHO and UNAIDS encouraged its introduction as an additional tool for protecting sexual and reproductive health. The female condom is gaining acceptance as an important choice for women. It is included in UNFPA supplies of reproductive health commodities and has been incorporated into national programming. Â The female condom is also promoted through the UN's programme addressing HIV/AIDS in the workplace. Â In 2008, access to female condoms increased significantly for the third consecutive year, bringing the total distribution to more than 33 million.
Research shows the female condom is comparable to other barrier methods in its effectiveness in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. It provides an important alternative to the male condom and expands options for safer sexual behaviour.
Because of the feminization of the HIV epidemic, UNFPA is committed to intensify its efforts by scaling up female condom programming to at least 23 countries through the Global Female Condom Initiative. At country level, UNFPA has helped establish condom technical working groups. It also works with key government counterparts and other stakeholders to develop and implement a country-driven female condom strategy.