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.
"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.
'Get with the program'
Hader said her agency is working to fix its problems while moving aggressively to attack the city's disproportionate rate of HIV infection. She said staffs of community organizations are training to demonstrate how the Condom should be used properly. One group is in talks with a hair salon on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast Washington to introduce the Condom and provide instruction on its use there.
"There are areas where the city is not doing a good job [with AIDS], but in some areas they are cutting edge. On this one, they're cutting edge" said Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed, a watchdog group. "The very fact that they're doing this . . . says to women of the city that this is important to you. This is important to your families. Get with the program."
Nancy Mahon, executive director of the MAC fund, said she approached Hader last year after the city released the statistics on its AIDS rate and asked: "If you could have a dream project here, what would it be?"
Hader thought of HIV/AIDS "hot spots" identified in the HIV Heterosexual Behavior Study, which was released in tandem with the epidemiological report. In the behavior study, 75 percent of participants said they were in committed relationships. But nearly half, 46 percent, said they thought their last sexual partner had had sex outside the relationship. And nearly half, 45 percent, said they had had sex outside the relationship.