The District of Columbia will begin distributing free female condoms in the next few weeks, in an effort to reduce HIV infections. The new program will make 500,000 female condoms available in beauty salons, convenience stores and high schools in parts of the city with high HIV rates. This makes DC the first city in the nation to make female condoms available for free.
“Anywhere male condoms are available, female condoms will be available,” Shannon Hader, director of the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration, told the Washington Post. “We’re trying to make every effort count to build on what already exists . . . to expand options rather than limit them.” The program will focus not only on making the female condom more accessible, but also on teaching correct use.
Female condoms offer dual protection from infection and pregnancy and may therefore also be useful in reducing high rates of unintended pregnancy.
High rates of HIV infections, a lack of ability by some women at risk of infection to negotiate male condom use, and a study showing that large numbers of African American heterosexuals are engaging in risky sexual behavior prompted the program.
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Seventy-five percent of participants in an HIV behavioural study 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. More than 70 percent said they didn’t use condoms, and only 60 percent said they had been tested for HIV.
The Post notes that HIV/AIDS infection is the leading cause of death for black women ages 25-34 nationwide. A 2008 report showed the District’s HIV infection rate at 3 percent, or about 15,100 adults, a major epidemic. Some think the rate may be as high as 5 percent.
According to Post article, “the [female condom] 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.”
The move is an official acknowledgment by the city 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. As is true in throughout the world, low-income women often are reluctant to protest when their husbands and boyfriends refuse to use male condoms because they may be dependent on the man’s income or may be physically abused or blamed for the suggestion of infidelity within the relationship. Moreover, women can’t always predict when their partners will demand sex and are not always able to refuse. Studies have shown that female condoms, which can be inserted well in advance of sexual intercourse, can be part of a larger plan of self-protection in such relationships.
The female condom has been available in Europe for nearly two decades and was first approved for use by the FDA in 1993. Its use in the United States was limited and ineffective. Last year the Federal Drug Administration approved an improved version, FC2, with a thinner polyurethane that conducts body heat and enhances sexual sensation for men and women, according to its designers at the Female Health Co. The new condom was developed in 2005 and became widely used in South Africa. It is now in use in nations such as Indonesia and Brazil.