Nathalie Kemmogne rubs her client’s scalp vigorously. Once she has rinsed out the shampoo, Ms. Kemmogne walks her client across the salon to sit under the helmet-shaped hair dryer. The hairdresser uses this opportunity to initiate a conversation with her client, Isabelle Pemboura, about the female condom.
Nineteen-year-old Isabelle Pemboura has never heard of the female condom. So Ms. Kemmogne holds up a model of the female genitals and demonstrates how to use the condom. Ms. Pemboura tries to insert the condom into the model herself, without much success. On the third attempt, she manages to fit the condom correctly. With a big smile, she says, “It’s weird to find condoms in a salon, but it is a good initiative … It is easier to pass this message woman to woman.”
The female condom demonstration is conducted in a jovial setting. Some girls volunteer stories of how their partner reacted when first seeing the condom and the comments he made, and the women explode in loud bursts of laughter.
In Cameroon, the prevalence rate for HIV is 5.6 per cent among women and 2.9 per cent among men. Young people between 15 and 24 have the highest rate of infection. Ms. Kemmogne has plastered the walls in her Yaoundè salon with posters designed to raise awareness of HIV among women. One of the posters reads, “AIDS kills: Protect yourself.”
The posters are featured in salons across Cameroon, and are produced by an NGO called l’Association Camerounaise pour le Marketing Social, or ACMS. ACMS works to improve the health of Cameroon’s population, and has been distributing female condoms in the country since 2009.
Sealed in pink packaging, the female condoms are placed prominently among the nail polishes and hair curlers scattered around Ms. Kemmogne’s salon. The 26-year-old hairdresser has been selling the condoms in her salon for four years. When ACMS asked Ms. Kemmogne if she would sell the condoms, she agreed immediately. She explains: “I heard women complaining for a long time [that] they were ashamed to buy condoms at the pharmacy. [This meant that] it was up to the man to choose whether or not to use protection. When the opportunity to sell these female condoms arose, I did not hesitate and subsequently my clients have been delighted.”
The hairdresser does not know exactly how many condoms she sells each month. But she estimates that more than half of her customers buy them. Some say their partner refuses to use them, and others say the condoms make too much noise. But those who are satisfied with the condoms come back for more.
Local authorities hope that making condoms widely available in hair salons will help reduce the transmission rate of HIV.
At the end of her hair appointment, Ms. Pemboura buys a packet of three female condoms for 100 Central African francs (20 US cents), less than the price of a loaf of bread. She says, “It’s cheaper here. It is also more discreet to buy them here instead of going to a pharmacy, where people look at you as if you were an alien.”