Mosquito Nets, Condoms, and Recycling

From the Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation:

Mosquito net manufactures are teaming up with the provincial administration and village elders in several parts of Kenya in an effort to apprehend and prosecute people who use the products for purposes other than covering beds.

According to Dr Elizabeth Juma, who is the head of malaria control under the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, there has been evidence of people turning the nets into fishing gear especially in Nyanza Province. Now a different group has discovered another lucrative business venture, and are using the nets to make wedding dresses.

Upon reading this news clip in William Easterly’s blog “Aid Watch“, I was reminded of condom training in the Peace Corps. The rampant AIDS problem in Thailand meant we were all trained on teaching rural Thai’s to use condoms, even if we weren’t health volunteers.

Condoms on bananas

Three carved wooden penises of various sizes were used in the demonstration. There are few things more embarrassing than practicing putting a condom on a wooden penis in front of your coworkers. But it had to be done. In the old days they used bananas for the demonstrations but switched to wooden replicas when they discovered that a few people that went home and actually put condoms on bananas thinking it had some sort of magical power to keep them safe.

An equally misunderstood technique involved the rhythm method of birth control. Although I no longer remember where I stumbled upon this story, it has stuck with me for many years. Aid workers used different colored beads on a string to help women tell when it was “safe” to have sex. Unfortunately some women misunderstood the concept and moved the beads to the “safe” color before having sex.

Changing behavior is not easy

Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that mosquito nets are being used for fishing nets and wedding dresses. Changing behavior is not easy. It requires an understanding of why the behavior needs to change, an understanding of how to do things better, the proper resources in place to make the change, and a general groundswell of acceptance of the new behavior. As an environmental educator I’m well aware of how hard this really is. Think of how long you or your family knew about recycling before you actually did it. How many things had to happen before you changed your behavior.

“I can still do it under the net”

Thais know that mosquitoes transmit malaria, but getting them to use the nets is difficult. The public health department has put up posters of a man sitting on his bed with the mosquito net behind him with the caption “I can still do it under the net”. Besides preferences about sex, other people don’t use mosquito nets because they cut down on air circulation making it hotter and more difficult to sleep at night.

What did it take to change your behavior?

It takes far more than just handing out aid to change behavior. Programs that give out mosquito nets, condoms, and other supplies are common. They are attractive to aid agencies because they can “help” a large number of people for very little money. But we cannot just pop into a village, give out aid, and then leave and expect to be successful. Just as a mass recycling campaign giving away free recycling bins in the US 10 years ago would have failed.