How gender norms and power may impact on the acceptability, access and adherence to microbicides

Optimizing HIV prevention for women: a review of evidence from microbicide studies and considerations for gender-sensitive microbicide introduction.

Doggett EG, Lanham M, Wilcher R, Gafos M, Karim QA, Heise L. J Int AIDS Soc. 2015 Dec 21;18(1):20536. doi: 10.7448/IAS.18.1.20536. eCollection 2015.

Introduction: Microbicides were conceptualized as a product that could give women increased agency over HIV prevention. However, gender-related norms and inequalities that place women and girls at risk of acquiring HIV are also likely to affect their ability to use microbicides. Understanding how gendered norms and inequalities may pose obstacles to women's microbicide use is important to inform product design, microbicide trial implementation and eventually microbicide and other antiretroviral-based prevention programmes. We reviewed published vaginal microbicide studies to identify gender-related factors that are likely to affect microbicide acceptability, access and adherence. We make recommendations on product design, trial implementation, positioning, marketing and delivery of microbicides in a way that takes into account the gender-related norms and inequalities identified in the review.

Methods: We conducted PubMed searches for microbicide studies published in journals between 2000 and 2013. Search terms included trial names (e.g. "MDP301"), microbicide product names (e.g. "BufferGel"), researchers' names (e.g. "van der Straten") and other relevant terms (e.g. "microbicide"). We included microbicide clinical trials; surrogate studies in which a vaginal gel, ring or diaphragm was used without an active ingredient; and hypothetical studies in which no product was used. Social and behavioural studies implemented in conjunction with clinical trials and surrogate studies were also included. Although we recognize the importance of rectal microbicides to women, we did not include studies of rectal microbicides, as most of them focused on men who have sex with men. Using a standardized review template, three reviewers read the articles and looked for gender-related findings in key domains (e.g. product acceptability, sexual pleasure, partner communication, microbicide access and adherence).

Results and discussion: The gendered norms, roles and relations that will likely affect women's ability to access and use microbicides are related to two broad categories: norms regulating women's and men's sexuality and power dynamics within intimate relationships. Though norms about women's and men's sexuality vary among cultural contexts, women's sexual behaviour and pleasure are typically less socially acceptable and more restricted than men's. These norms drive the need for woman-initiated HIV prevention, but also have implications for microbicide acceptability and how they are likely to be used by women of different ages and relationship types. Women's limited power to negotiate the circumstances of their intimate relationships and sex lives will impact their ability to access and use microbicides. Men's role in women's effective microbicide use can range from opposition to non-interference to active support.

Conclusions: Identifying an effective microbicide that women can use consistently is vital to the future of HIV prevention for women. Once such a microbicide is identified and licensed, positioning, marketing and delivering microbicides in a way that takes into account the gendered norms and inequalities we have identified would help maximize access and adherence. It also has the potential to improve communication about sexuality, strengthen relationships between women and men and increase women's agency over their bodies and their health.

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Editor’s notes: This paper presents a review of the evidence of microbicides research to understand gender-associated factors that could impact on acceptability, access and adherence. These gender norms include women and men’s sexual norms and power differentials in intimate partner relationships. This review included studies conducted between 2000 and 2013 and thus only includes papers on hypothetical research and clinical trials. While the studies were conducted in a variety of contexts the authors found a number of similar norms and power differentials.

In relation to sexual norms, the review revealed findings on sexual risk, sexual pleasure, and sexual preferences. In terms of sexual risk there were differing opinions across the studies of which women were most likely to need microbicides. Some studies suggested that microbicides should be focused on women in steady partnerships where condom negotiation is difficult, while others suggested focusing on key populations such as sex workers. Across many studies the potential for promoting sexual pleasure for both women and men emerged as an advantage of microbicides, and had an impact on acceptability. However, many of the studies highlighted how men’s sexual pleasure takes precedence. In relation to sexual preferences, the much touted idea that men prefer ‘dry’ or ‘tight’ sex was challenged by some of the studies, which found that the lubricating effect of the gel was acceptable.

The review also uncovered issues associated to power inequalities in intimate partner relationships, including power to control time of sex, male partner engagement and communication, and intimate-partner violence. Women reported in many studies their lack of power to control the timing of sex and this is seen as likely to impact on their ability to use coitally-dependant microbicides. However, there is some evidence that men supported women’s use of the gel, although this depended on the type of relationship. While microbicides have been promoted as products that women can use without a partner’s knowledge the review illustrated that women do prefer to communicate with their partners about their use and there is evidence of joint-decision making. Further, there was evidence of women experiencing intimate partner violence in relation to trial participation. There is also some evidence that women were less likely to discuss or use microbicides in violent relationships.

This highly comprehensive review concludes that while microbicides will not empower women they do have the potential to enhance women’s agency in relation to their health and sexuality and may improve communication in their relationships. However, the authors conclude that gender norms and power differentials may impact on acceptability, access and adherence.

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