"It's some kind of women's empowerment": the ambiguity of the female condom as a marker of female empowerment

Soc Sci Med. 2001 Mar;52(5):783-96. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(00)00185-4.


The female condom is the latest in a series of sexual and reproductive technologies to be imported into the third world, following the contraceptive pill, the Depo-Provera injection, the latex male condom, and others. It is an example of "traveling technology", which accrues different meanings and connotations in the different settings into which it is introduced in its journey through the circuits of international technological diffusion, from the headquarters of international NGOs and bilateral aid programs, through the bureaucracies of national ministries of health to the communities in urban and rural settings where the condoms are distributed. The female condom almost always carries connotations of women's empowerment, and the possibility of greater sexual autonomy for women. This association is a result of the female condom being the first new "post-Cairo" technology, the diffusion of which was spurred by the consensus reached at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, at which the need to promote women's empowerment was moved to the center of international family planning and population movements. However, I demonstrate that "empowerment" is an ambiguous term, interpreted in different ways in different contexts. I illustrate this through interviews conducted in 1998 and 1999 with stakeholders in the female condom in Cape Town, Nairobi, and in rural western Kenya. These stakeholders range from directors of US-based development programs to heads of national AIDS-prevention efforts to community-based distributors and primary health care nurses at the village level. I argue that three different notions of empowerment are being articulated with respect to the female condom--two which correspond to Maxine Molyneux's typology of strategic and practical gender interests, and a third in which women's empowerment is conceived of as something which diminished the power of men. I argue further that the disjunctures between these three different notions of what "empowerment" means will pose a challenge for people at all levels which are seeking to make the female condom more widely accessible to women at risk of HIV/AIDS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Condoms, Female / economics
  • Condoms, Female / statistics & numerical data
  • Condoms, Female / supply & distribution*
  • Developing Countries
  • Family Planning Services / methods*
  • Female
  • Feminism*
  • Freedom
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Kenya
  • Male
  • Power, Psychological*
  • South Africa
  • Technology Transfer