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Could this gel be the first male contraceptive?

Vasectomy? Hell no! Condoms? Not in a marriage set-up. Withdrawal? Well…well, how now? These are all excuses men give, even as they label family planning a female thing. But soon, men would literally shoulder this burden

Sandra Wekesa @AndayiSandra

For a long time, family planning services and programmes have focused on women. And many men consider family planning as a ‘women thing’. Take for instance, when a hot steamy session results to an unplanned pregnancy, the first question a man would ask is, “Why didn’t you take precaution. Or I thought you were safe.” Thus laying the blame on the woman.

And so women have carried the burden and the side-effects that come from using various family planning methods, such as weight gain, hormonal imbalances, among others. And even when some men would like to take responsibility, there are not as many options to choose from as they have to either use condoms, go for a vasectomy or use withdrawal method.

However, not many married men agree to use condoms when being intimate with their wives. They argue that condoms are for those who have extra-marital affairs. And when it comes to vasectomy, local beliefs associate it with de-masculinisation, framing it in terms of castration.

Reduced sperm production

But what if there is another option for men? This is where Kenyan men come in. A simple and easy-to-use male contraception gel will soon go on a clinical trial for effectiveness, with researchers planning to enrol over 400 couples to see if this approach can achieve the result of preventing pregnancies. And Kenya is among the six countries that have been chosen for this trial. Others are from US, UK, Italy, Sweden and Chile.

Could this gel be the first male contraceptive?

Developed by the Population Council and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the gel, called NES/T, contains a combination of testosterone and a progestin compound called Nestorone. It is applied to the back and shoulders and absorbed through the skin.

The progestin blocks a guy’s natural testosterone production, which reduces sperm production to extremely low or practically “nonexistent” levels. Then, the testosterone in the gel makes sure he still has his normal sex drive – and that other bodily functions that depend on testosterone continue as normal, too.

The debate

The gel can suppress sperm levels for about 72 hours – meaning that a man cannot be able to impregnate a woman for three days after application of the gel.

However, this has stirred a lot of debate countrywide. “This gel will work well with us. We do not have to deal with unwanted pregnancies anymore. Also, some women have had to experience a lot of side-effects from using family planning methods, and they end up abandoning them all together. When they do that, they become uncomfortable having sex as they fear to get pregnant,” says Daniel Ochido.

Another one, Muriuki Maina says he had always wanted to take responsibility in family planning matters but feared going for vasectomy. So, this gel is an easy option.

Other see it as a means to catch a cheating spouse. “If I use this method and one day my wife announces to me she is pregnant, I would know the baby is not mine. That way, I would know she has been having an affair. So it is a welcome idea for me” says David Mutiso.

But not all men are for this idea. “If anyone wants to do family planning, then they should go ahead and not involve me. I wouldn’t mind taking care of a lot of children because I have the mean,” says John Mutua.

Traditional gender roles in Kenya dictate that men should be powerful, dominant and have many children. Masculinity norms make some men unsure about family planning. Some feel pressure to produce many children as a sign of their virility. “Men do not have a lastborn child. Only acting lastborns. So using a male contraceptive is a “no no” for me,” says 40-year old James Wanjala.

But do women really want men to have a decision-making role? A key feature of the family planning movement is that a woman has autonomy over her body. That is why some women are pessimistic about male contraception. “No family planning is 100 per cent effective.

Even the various methods of contraception used by women often fail. And this male contraceptive is in it’s trial stage. What if it doesn’t work on my man and I end up getting pregnant? What if then he says the baby isn’t his, because according to men, nothing they do should fail? Therefore, I would rather continue with family planning myself,” says Mary Akinyi, a businesswoman.

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