Yes, I said it. But it’s not my word. I’m just the messenger, relating to you what I heard: sneaky.
According to health care providers I interviewed recently in Western Province, Kenya, sneaking is exactly what women feel they need to do if they want to avoid or postpone pregnancy. Their male partners, for the most part, do not want them limiting the number of children they bear. Many men share the traditional attitude that the primary role of women is to give birth. Others believe that family planning makes women “promiscuous” or that certain contraceptive methods produce deformed children. So, faced with men’s resistance and socially disempowered, many women don’t tell their male partners about the contraception they use.
But family planning is more than a UN-recognized right for a woman “to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of [her] children.” It’s also a powerful HIV prevention strategy, part of a comprehensive approach to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT). Each year, HIV-positive women in sub-Saharan Africa avert almost 175,000 HIV-positive births by using contraception, a figure that would nearly double if all HIV-positive African women were able to use family planning services.
Programs that integrate family planning and HIV services—such as the USAID-funded AIDS, Population, and Health Integrated Assistance II (APHIA II) Western Project—enable women to postpone pregnancy or avoid unintended pregnancy, which, in the case of HIV-positive women, decreases mother-to-child HIV transmission. Such programs also increase the number of community members who get tested, as well as the number of women and men enrolling in HIV care, support, and treatment programs.
How does APHIA II Western work? On the most basic level, if you are a woman going to a clinic for an HIV service—maybe a CD4 count—the provider will ask you if you are pregnant, if you are using a family planning method, and, if not, whether you would like to learn about the methods available. If the answer is yes, you will get counseling on family planning and either receive the contraceptives immediately (free of charge) or be referred elsewhere for them. Likewise, if you arrive and are seeking a family planning method, the provider will ask if you have been tested for HIV and, if not, whether you would like to be. The HIV rapid test is also free.
In fact, no matter what brought you to the clinic, providers will ask you these questions—and more.
So far, so good—but what about the sneaking?
Despite an abundance of contraceptive methods available at the clinics, women always have to consider what might happen when they go home. So, many opt for “sneaky” contraceptives, such as the injectable Depo-Provera, that can be used without their partners’ knowledge. Depo-Provera is an effective contraceptive, but it must be re-injected every three months, and it does not protect against HIV. In fact, the only contraceptive methods that can help prevent HIV transmission are male and female condoms—both of which require either the male partner’s involvement or knowledge.
So how can family planning programs and policies bridge that wide gap between men’s attitudes and women’s contraceptive and HIV prevention needs? The short answer is that male norms and behaviors must change so that men learn to support women’s contraceptive choices and to participate in family planning themselves. This is not news: In 2009, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) advocated that HIV prevention, treatment, and care and support programs address male norms and behaviors.
One way to do this is to increase men’s interactions with the health care system, especially with programs that protect the health of their partners and children. APHIA II Western Project accomplishes this by holding “male clinics” on weekends, where men learn about PMTCT and other reproductive health topics, some of which are considered taboo for men to discuss. To attract participants, these male clinics do not focus exclusively on HIV, a subject that is raised only toward the end of the session, but also cover broader health issues that are important to men, such as high blood pressure. During each clinic, the men are given the option to be tested for HIV and asked to spread the message by returning the following week with a friend. By bringing men together in this way and around PMTCT, the project is tackling some of the norms that force women to feel sneaky about seeking care.
The program also encourages male involvement by sending PMTCT clients accompanied by their male partners to the front of the service queue. This policy has decreased loss-to-follow-up and offers an opportunity to enroll additional men in the male clinics.
If you work in the field of public health, you may already know about the value of integrating services. But the success of APHIA II Western’s efforts shows that it is important to not only integrate services but also to incorporate strategies that address gender inequity.
It is time for all the sneaking to stop. Instead, women and men should be proud to exercise their right to family planning. With support from gender-sensitive health programs, the mothers and fathers of Kenya can lead the effort to end vertical HIV transmission.
For other programs addressing male norms and behaviors, see the Gender Compendium.
AIDSTAR-One is managed by USAID’s Office of HIV/AIDS, and provides rapid technical assistance to USAID and U.S. Government country teams to build effective, well-managed, and sustainable HIV and AIDS programs and promotes new leadership in the global campaign against HIV.