Unequal Power Relations in HIV Prevention

21 May 2018

A study among pregnant women in South Africa has found many lack control over condom use – and would be willing to use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to protect themselves and their babies from HIV. In-depth interviews with 26 South African women who were either pregnant or recently post-partum, revealed high levels of interest in PrEP. Many of the interviewees reported feeling that they did not have a say in whether they used a condom with their partner.

In the study, published in Plos Medicine, researchers conducted qualitative interviews with the women, all of whom were HIV negative with a positive partner or a partner with an unknown status. They all reported having condomless sex and using alcohol while pregnant. While they expressed a clear desire to protect themselves and their baby from HIV, the vast majority of participants felt they did not have a say in the matter of condom use, and many described times when their partners showed firm resistance to condoms. Some also said their use of drugs and/or alcohol reduced their sense of risk, which further increased the likelihood of condomless sex.

Furthermore unequal power relations led to participants feeling unable to ask whether their partner was HIV positive or negative. Many said they struggled to get their partner to test for HIV, and that their partner determined their own status based on the HIV tests they had undergone. Some also reported being blamed for their partner’s HIV positive status, despite being negative themselves. 

Researchers found participants were aware they were at an increased risk of acquiring HIV, although the women’s sense of risk changed after giving birth. Many linked their increased risk to having a partner who engaged in multiple sexual partnerships during their pregnancy but felt unable to challenge their partner over this, use condoms or abstain from sex.

Although most had not heard of PrEP before the study, all except one said they would be interested in using it. However, some were concerned about the harmful impact PrEP could have on their unborn child, expressing the worry that “because it’s a pill... I would not be sure how it would affect the baby”.

In this context of women’s limited power over decisions surrounding sex and condom use, the study suggests pregnant women and new mothers in South Africa would benefit from PrEP. However, it also has important implications for the design of programmes that seek to deliver PrEP to pregnant women. This includes the need for counselling to address the potential risks to babies and infants whose mothers are taking PrEP, and how best to take PrEP when sexual activity is constantly changing during pregnancy and post-birth periods.

The study also reinforces the urgent need for HIV prevention interventions that address unequal gender relations, such as couples’ counselling and testing for HIV and interventions that prevent gender-based violence.

Read the full article online here.