Pakistani mother Shabana tends to her new born baby twins at a government hospital in Karachi. A recent provocative condom commercial has health workers worried it will hinder their efforts to educate women about contraception.
Credit: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

KARACHI, Pakistan — The advertisement was less than a minute long, but its impact on Pakistani society could last for much longer.

It was Pakistan’s first overtly sexual condom commercial, broadcast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — which ended in Pakistan on Aug 8 — but quickly pulled off the air by the country’s media regulatory authority on July 22.

The spot, for Josh Condoms, features an ordinary looking husband with a doting, supermodel wife. When the neighbors ask why such a beautiful woman is so sweet and attentive and married to him, the husband smiles and holds up a packet of Josh Condoms. 

It broke a serious taboo in conservative Pakistani society by using an advertisement for contraception to imply that sex could take place simply for pleasure — even with your spouse. Contraception is widely seen as simply an instrument of family planning.

Reproductive health workers say they are worried the commercial, despite having been banned from the airwaves, will hinder the progress they made in introducing contraception here. Pakistan is both deeply religious and experiencing a population boom — and encouraging couples to use protection is already an uphill battle.

“If religious leaders or elders in the community even begin to perceive our work as something that encourages premarital or extramarital sex, we're in trouble,” said Asfhan Khan of Pakistan’s independent Reproductive Health Network, a group that helps train community health workers. 

To get around taboos like this, Khan says that reproductive health groups court religious leaders by framing the contraception debate in terms of child spacing —encouraging women to wait longer before having another child.

“That’s why this commercial was so shocking,” she said. “It basically said: ‘Here, go on, have as much as you’d like — just use condoms.’ You can’t really say that, especially not on television.”

Indeed, part of the commercial's controversy stemmed from the fact that it was broadcast at primetime during Ramadan. Eighty percent of Pakistanis have access to a television, according to the Pakistan Institute of Public Opinion. 

“It was disrespectful to bring up sex and to introduce the subject of condoms during a Ramadan primetime broadcast,” said Mohammad Liaquat, a convenience store vendor in Karachi. 

"It was also embarrassing for me to see that with my two daughters and see a woman prostituting herself with housework to get more pleasurable sex," he said. 

Condoms are widely available in Pakistan. But for women, views like Liaquat’s make access to contraception that much harder. 

In Pakistan’s rural areas, many of which are dangerous or isolated, oral contraceptives are simply not available. 

Pharmacies are scarce or don’t carry birth control pills — or travel to one outside the village is expensive and risky. Even if there is a medical clinic in the area, a woman could hide the fact that she’s using contraception out of shame or fear the doctor would spread the word. 

Pakistan does not maintain a national health ministry, and family planning is not a priority. 

Female community health workers in Pakistan say older women in rural areas became more outwardly suspicious of their work. Women in one area told a local health worker to leave because they believed she was teaching a new bride how to become more promiscuous. 

Young marriage is common in Pakistan. Right now more than 40 percent of Pakistani men are under the age of 30, and most are married before the age of 25, according to the United Nations. 

"What no one is talking about whatsoever is that Pakistan has a very young population," said an employee at Interflow Communications, the local advertising agency that produced the Josh Condoms commercial. 

Also according to the UN, Pakistan’s population is expected to double from 180 million right now to almost 300 million in 20 years.

It is already the 6th most populous country in the world. About 14,000 children are born here every day. Only about one-third of married women in Pakistan have access to contraception.

DKT International, a US-based non-profit focused on safe sex and family planning, markets Josh Condoms in Pakistan. 

“We believe Pakistan’s population issues are such that we must use prime time television as an educational and public discussion tool,” said Juan Enrique Garcia, DKT’s director in Pakistan.

“We were very surprised by the response,” he said. But “people are talking about contraception. Ultimately that’s what we wanted.”

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