BMC women’s health 2017 12 0817(1) 125 doi 10.1186/s12905-017-0485-9
Young people living with perinatally-acquired HIV require age-appropriate support regarding sex and relationships as they progress towards adulthood. HIV affects both genders but evidence suggests that young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and more prone to engaging in sexual behaviours to meet their daily survival needs. This can result in poor sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes. HIV services in Malawi provide support for young women’s HIV-related clinical needs, but it is unclear whether there is sufficient provision for their SRH needs as they become adults. This paper explores the sex and relationship experiences of young women growing up with perinatally-acquired HIV in order to understand how to improve SRH care and associated outcomes.
A qualitative case study approach was adopted in which each ‘case’ comprised a young woman (15-19 years) with perinatally acquired HIV, a nominated caregiver and service provider. Participants were purposively selected from three multidisciplinary centres providing specialised paediatric/adolescent HIV care in Malawi. Data was collected for 14 cases through in-depth interviews (i.e. a total of 42 participants) and analysed using within-case and cross-case approaches. The interviews with adolescents were based on an innovative visual method known as ‘my story book’ which encouraged open discussion on sensitive topics.
Young women reported becoming sexually active at an early age for different reasons. Some sought a sense of intimacy, love, acceptance and belonging in these relationships, noting that they lacked this at home and/or within their peer groups. For others, their sexual activity was more functional – related to meeting survival needs. Young women reported having little control over negotiating safer sex or contraception. Their priority was preventing unwanted pregnancies yet several of the sample already had babies, and transfer to antenatal services created major disruptions in their HIV care. In contrast, caregivers and nurses regarded sexual activity from a clinical perspective, fearing onward transmission of HIV and advocating abstinence or condoms where possible. In addition, a cultural silence rooted in dominant religious and traditional norms closed down possibilities for discussion about sexual matters and prevented young women from accessing contraception.
The study has shown how young women, caregivers and service providers have contrasting perspectives and priorities around SRH care. Illumination of these differences highlights a need for service improvement. It is suggested that young women themselves are involved in future service improvement initiatives to encourage the development of culturally and socially acceptable pathways of care.