The District will become the first city in the United States to distribute female condoms free, part of a project that will make 500,000 of them available in beauty salons, convenience stores and high schools in parts of the city with high HIV rates.
City officials said the distribution could begin within the next three weeks in parts of wards 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7, where a study showed that large numbers of African American heterosexuals engage in risky sexual behavior that could easily lead to infection.
The move is an official acknowledgment of the futility of relying solely on the use of male condoms, which have been distributed citywide for nearly a decade, to stem the District's epidemic of HIV and AIDS. Officials said they are turning to female condoms to give women more power to protect themselves from HIV and sexually transmitted diseases when their partners refuse to use protection.
HIV/AIDS infection is the leading cause of death for black women 25-34 nationwide. A 2008 report showed the District's HIV/AIDS rate at 3 percent, or about 15,100 adults, a major epidemic.
"Anywhere male condoms are available, female condoms will be available," said Shannon Hader, director of the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration. "We're not saying that if you're a school in this area, you can't get female condoms. We're trying to make every effort count to build on what already exists . . . to expand options rather than limit them."
The project is funded through a $500,000 grant from the MAC AIDS Fund, a subsidiary of MAC Cosmetics, which contributes to numerous city programs, including two of the city's needle exchange programs. The grant helped the city buy the condoms at wholesale prices from the Female Health Co. and provide them for distribution by social service organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the Community Education Group and the Women's Collective.
In recent months, the HIV/AIDS Administration came under scrutiny after a Washington Post investigation revealed that some groups with which it contracted to provide services failed to obtain business licenses and file tax returns. Others gave false information about employee résumés and consulting contracts, or spent lavishly on travel and executive salaries.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development threatened to withhold $12.2 million in federal funding but released the money after the District agreed to improve its tracking of spending by AIDS programs and monitor the services they deliver.
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