Condom rebrand vital to curb new HIV infections among Malawi’s youth

Condoms have become increasingly unpopular among young people in Malawi, contributing to high HIV transmission rates.

Condoms have become increasingly unpopular among young people in Malawi, contributing to high HIV transmission rates.

According to the Malawi National AIDS Commission, 310,000 of the one million people living with HIV in Malawi are aged under 24.

Recently the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) and the Malawi government have joined hands to launch the CONDOMIZE! campaign in an effort to persuade young people to protect themselves by using condoms.

But why is there a strong resistance to condoms from the youth population? According to a study conducted by PSI/Malawi, it could all be down to their image. The study showed that young people in Malawi perceive free unbranded condoms to be poorly made, less safe and more likely to break than other brands.

Poor quality condoms

Esther Mayaya (not her real name) a young sex worker from Bangwe Township, Blantyre, explained that most of the condoms available for free distribution and on the market in Malawi are repellent. “These condoms produce unpleasant smells, especially the ones available in clinics for free distribution. They are disgusting and I understand why most young people don’t want to use them,” she said.

Steve Luhanga, aged 19, based in Chilobwe Township, Blantyre, said the local condoms are poor quality and unattractive. “They often break and the packaging is pathetic,” he said.

Gravel Kandodo, an HIV testing counsellor at South Lunzu Health Centre, admitted that most young people shun condoms. “What’s more scary is the fact that even though they know that condoms offer them protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, they still don’t want to use them,” he said.

The figures back up these claims. According to Unicef, only 41 per cent of young men aged 15-24 and 31 per cent of young women used a condom the last time they had sex with a partner they were not living with or married to.

Appealing to young people

In order to test whether rebranding condoms could make a difference to young people’s attitudes, PSI/Malawi, with funding from the National Aids Commission, developed a new brand of condoms called Silvertouch. They distributed them in six districts to assess acceptability and uptake among young people. The results of the study showed that 86 per cent of young people found Silvertouch condoms appealing.

Kandodo believes that this approach can work. “Young people are diverse, so rebranding free condoms in variety of colours and flavours, with messages that appeal to them, can help increase their use.” Kandodo also stressed that young people must still make use of the condoms that are currently available, in order to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Even though sex education is robust in the country, condom usage rates among the youth are still very low. Ronald Sapuwa, an HIV activist from Lilongwe, said: “Young people are at the centre of HIV/AIDS in the country in terms of infection rates. We are losing young people who could have contributed to the development of this country from AIDS every day, despite all the information out there. This should send a strong message to the policymakers.”

Sapuwa also said that the government and HIV/AIDS organisations should be clever in their prevention strategies when dealing with the youth market. “The new HIV infection figures on youth have proved that sex education alone is not enough. If branding condoms with different colours and flavours can reduce the figures, then we shouldn’t hesitate,” he said.

HIV is now the second largest contributor of adolescent mortality globally, and the number one in Africa. Between 2005 and 2012, HIV-related deaths among adolescents increased by a staggering 50 per cent. In Malawi, HIV prevalence among 15-24 year-olds is currently 3.6 per cent, with a higher prevalence of 5.2 per cent among young women.

This story was first published by Thomson Reuters Foundation

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