The Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka's (FPASL) Smart Condom Vending Machine (ingeniously named 'Vendom') can be found right at the end of Buller's Lane outside the organization's headquarters. As a social venture, it’s potentially a great first step to remove the taboo around purchasing condoms, which according to one newspaper article results in about 600-800 abortions a day. Yes you read that right.
This machine is an experiment, and the FPA is reportedly intent on expanding it to other locations. While we at YAMU applaud the measure, we're still going to give the experience of using it a thorough once over.
OK, first of all, where is it located? The Smart Condom Vending Machine isn't exactly conveniently placed so that you can quickly and discreetly access it while running errands. To get here requires you to take a rather lengthy detour to an obscure neighborhood in Colombo full of large houses with shuttered windows through which anyone could be watching (Lakshaman Kadirgama was shot dead by an assassin hiding behind one of these very same vents). A slow trickle of curious foot and vehicle traffic passes you creepily by while you try to nonchalantly purchase something that will make your mothers and aunties 'chee' in disgust if they knew about it.
I don’t know about you, but this didn’t strike me as being enormously helpful in mitigating the social taboo aspect of buying condoms. But it might be an improvement on the pharmacy experience which, while being quite straight-forward (most pharmacy staff are pretty deadpan when selling you condoms, they do it several times a day after all, though it can be sometimes bad for women), can possibly result in anxiety for those anticipating disgusted looks.
Is not as simple as it should be. In fact it’s rather alarmingly invasive. There is a five-step process to buying a condom, which means you'll be standing there for a while. It took me roughly 5 minutes. It is also garishly decorated, plastered with branding, and anyone within sighting distance will know what you are doing.
Oh and only Dialog customers can buy condoms (what?). You can't actually pay by cash, and have to enter your Dialog phone number, after which you will be sent a pin to your phone. And then you can either use EZCash, Dialog's mobile payment system, or pay via bill. All terribly surveillance-y, because now your dastardly sexual practices are a part of the permanent public record with a paper trail your parents can access, making getting disowned a major risk factor of using this machine.
It is also a little glitchy. The machine sells 6 varieties of condoms. Starting from Preethi (Rs. 50 for a pack of 3) to Mixed Berry (Rs. 150), which rather sounds like an ice cream flavor. Even though the machine gives you the option of picking what you want, none of the tray numbers I entered worked. So I just kept punching in random numbers until it spat out a pack of Stamina (for extended love) which set me back Rs. 80 (which my parents now will know about if and when they see my bill).
This is not an option for the brand conscious.
A great venture by FPASL, but a little too cumbersome an experience given their stated goals of encouraging people to buy contraceptives. It is also highly surveillance oriented, though more by accident and ill planning than design. 'Vendom' could have been way easier to use and purchase condoms through if it didn’t insist on long processes and personal information, and it could have been placed in a far more accessible location. Even better, why not just give away condoms for free? I know this might be costly, but surely cheaper than the social and economic cost of having to deal with illegal abortions.
If you're not squirmy about buying contraceptives, stick to a pharmacy.