Authors: S Bergam, A D Harrison, N Benghu, S Khumalo, N Tesfay, T Exner, L Miller, C Dolezal, J Hanass-Hancock, S Hoffman
Daily oral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) offers effective HIV prevention. In South Africa, PrEP is publicly available, but use among young women remains low. We explored young women’s perceptions of PrEP to inform a gender-focused intervention to promote PrEP uptake. Six focus group discussions and eight in-depth interviews exploring perceptions of PrEP were conducted with forty-six women not using PrEP, ages 18-25, from central Durban. Data were thematically analyzed using a team-based consensus approach. The study was conducted among likely PrEP users: women were highly-educated, with 84.8% enrolled in post-secondary education. Qualitative data revealed intersecting social stigmas related to HIV and women’s sexuality. Women feared that daily PrEP pills would be confused with anti-retroviral treatment, creating vulnerability to misplaced HIV stigma. Women also anticipated that taking PrEP could expose them to assumptions of promiscuity from the community. To address these anticipated community-level reactions, women suggested community-facing interventions to reduce the burden on young women considering PrEP. Concerns around PrEP use in this group of urban, educated women reflects layered stigmas that may inhibit future PrEP use. Stigma-reducing strategies, such as media campaigns and educational interventions directed at communities who could benefit from PrEP, should re-frame PrEP as an empowering and responsible choice for young women.