More than 70 percent said they didn't use condoms, and only 60 percent said they had been tested for HIV. Hader and other health officials said they think the District's HIV rate is closer to 5 percent because many people might be unaware that they are infected.

Activists say poor women often are reluctant to protest when their husbands and boyfriends refuse to use male condoms because they are dependent on the man's income.

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. Women complained that the first version, FC1, was too expensive, about $17 for a box of five, and unsatisfactory.

New condom approved

Last year the Federal Drug Administration approved a second 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.

Mahon and Hader entered into discussions with Mary Ann Leeper, senior strategic adviser for the Female Health Co. The company was in the process of contacting the health departments in cities with the highest rate of infection when the call came, Leeper said.

CVS became the nation's first pharmacy to sell the new condom after the group contacted the company, said Vernon Goad, CVS's field marketing manager in the Washington area. Goad said the pharmacy will offer the female condoms next to male condoms in all of its 56 city stores, not just in target areas. A package of three female condoms sells for $6.50. A three-pack of male condoms sells for $5 to $7.

The female condoms went on sale in December, but sales have been slow. "I don't think people are aware that we have them," Goad said.