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

Elizabeth G. Doggett, Michele Lanham, Rose Wilcher, Mitzy Gafos, Quarraisha A. Karim, Lori Heise

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


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 womens 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 womens ability to access and use microbicides are related to two broad categories: norms regulating womens and mens sexuality and power dynamics within intimate relationships. Though norms about womens and mens sexuality vary among cultural contexts, womens sexual behaviour and pleasure are typically less socially acceptable and more restricted than mens. 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. Womens limited power to negotiate the circumstances of their intimate relationships and sex lives will impact their ability to access and use microbicides. Mens role in womens 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 womens agency over their bodies and their health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20536
JournalJournal of the International AIDS Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 21 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Gender
  • Gender norms
  • HIV prevention
  • Microbicides
  • Woman-controlled methods

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Infectious Diseases


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