"If my husband leaves me, I will go home and suffer, so better cling to him and hide this thing": The influence of gender on Option B+ prevention of mother-to-child transmission participation in Malawi and Uganda
The role of gender in prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) participation under Option B+ has not been adequately studied, but it is critical for reducing losses to follow-up. This study used qualitative methods to examine the interplay of gender and individual, interpersonal, health system, and community factors that contribute to PMTCT participation in Malawi and Uganda. We conducted in-depth interviews with women in PMTCT, women lost to follow-up, government health workers, and stakeholders at organizations supporting PMTCT as well as focus group discussions with men. We analyzed the data using thematic content analysis. We found many similarities in key themes across respondent groups and between the two countries. The main facilitators of PMTCT participation were knowledge of the health benefits of ART, social support, and self-efficacy. The main barriers were fear of HIV disclosure and stigma and lack of social support, male involvement, self-efficacy, and agency. Under Option B+, women learn about their HIV status and start lifelong ART on the same day, before they have a chance to talk to their husbands or families. Respondents explained that very few husbands accompanied their wives to the clinic, because they felt it was a female space and were worried that others would think their wives were controlling them. Many respondents said women fear disclosing, because they fear HIV stigma as well as the risk of divorce and loss of economic support. If women do not disclose, it is difficult for them to participate in PMTCT in secret. If they do disclose, they must abide by their husbands' decisions about their PMTCT participation, and some husbands are unsupportive or actively discouraging. To improve PMTCT participation, Ministries of Health should use evidence-based strategies to address HIV stigma, challenges related to disclosure, insufficient social support and male involvement, and underlying gender inequality.