HIV Prevalence, Risks for HIV Infection, and Human
Rights among Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) in
Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana
Stefan Baral1,7*, Gift Trapence2, Felistus Motimedi3, Eric Umar4, Scholastika Iipinge5, Friedel Dausab6,
1Center for Public Health and Human Rights, Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America,
2Center for the Development of People, Blantyre, Malawi, 3Botswana Network on Ethics, Law, and HIV/AIDS, Gaborone, Botswana, 4Department of Community Health,
University of Malawi,-College of Medicine, Blantyre, Malawi, 5HIV/AIDS Coordinator, University of Namibia, Windhoek, Namibia, 6The Rainbow Project, Windhoek,
Namibia, 7Department of Public Health Sciences, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Background: In the generalized epidemics of HIV in southern Sub-Saharan Africa, men who have sex with men have been
largely excluded from HIV surveillance and research. Epidemiologic data for MSM in southern Africa are among the sparsest
globally, and HIV risk among these men has yet to be characterized in the majority of countries.
Methodology: A cross-sectional anonymous probe of 537 men recruited with non-probability sampling among men who
reported ever having had sex with another man in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana using a structured survey instrument and
HIV screening with the OraQuick? rapid test kit.
Principal Findings: The HIV prevalence among those between the ages of 18 and 23 was 8.3% (20/241); 20.0% (42/210)
among those 24–29; and 35.7% (30/84) among those older than 30 for an overall prevalence of 17.4% (95% CI 14.4–20.8). In
multivariate logistic regressions, being older than 25 (aOR 4.0, 95% CI 2.0–8.0), and not always wearing condoms during sex
(aOR 2.6, 95% CI 1.3–4.9) were significantly associated with being HIV-positive. Sexual concurrency was common with 16.6%
having ongoing concurrent stable relationships with a man and a woman and 53.7% had both male and female sexual
partners in proceeding 6 months. Unprotected anal intercourse was common and the use of petroleum-based lubricants
was also common when using condoms. Human rights abuses, including blackmail and denial of housing and health care
was prevalent with 42.1% (222/527) reporting at least one abuse.
Conclusions: MSM are a high-risk group for HIV infection and human rights abuses in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana.
Concurrency of sexual partnerships with partners of both genders may play important roles in HIV spread in these
populations. Further epidemiologic and evaluative research is needed to assess the contribution of MSM to southern
Africa’s HIV epidemics and how best to mitigate this. These countries should initiate and adequately fund evidence-based
and targeted HIV prevention programs for MSM.
Citation: Baral S, Trapence G, Motimedi F, Umar E, Iipinge S, et al. (2009) HIV Prevalence, Risks for HIV Infection, and Human Rights among Men Who Have Sex
with Men (MSM) in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana. PLoS ONE 4(3): e4997. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004997
Editor: Lisa F. P. Ng, Singapore Immunology Network, Singapore
Received December 21, 2008; Accepted March 4, 2009; Published March 26, 2009
Copyright: ? 2009 Baral et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: This study was supported by the Sexual Health and Rights Project (SHARP) of the Open Society Institute and the Open Society Initiative for Southern
Africa (OSISA). The decision to publish was made by the community partners and not the funders. Publication costs were offset by a grant from The Himmelfarb
Family Foundation to the Center for Public Health and Human Rights.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
* E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
While southern Sub-Saharan Africa has long been the most
HIV/AIDS affected region globally, it has been arguably the most
understudied for the risk of HIV associated with male to male
sexual contact [1–3] The crude characterization of these
epidemics as generalized and driven by heterosexual risks has
obscured the component of Southern Africa’s epidemics which
may be due to risks among men who have sex with men (MSM).
The marked homophobia, discrimination, and criminalization of
same-sex behavior in much of Africa have likely limited
investigation among these men. [4,5]. Data regarding the
prevalence of MSM in the region are among the sparsest globally,
but there is evidence that male to male sexual contact is a reality
on this continent as on all others . To date, there have been
published papers from only Senegal and Kenya describing HIV
risk and prevalence among MSM in Africa [6,7]. However, a
systematic review found studies from other African countries either
not presenting HIV prevalence data or studies that to-date have
only been presented as abstracts . These studies suggest that
African MSM are at substantial risk for HIV infection, and that
they have been markedly underserved and marginalized. Reported
HIV rates, where available, have been higher than among other
men of reproductive age in the same populations, yet these men
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tend to have limited knowledge of the health related risks of anal
intercourse [8–10]. The lack of data on MSM and HIV are
paradoxically the most marked for the world’s highest prevalence
zone; the southern region of Sub-Saharan Africa. No published
studies have reported HIV prevalence among MSM in Namibia,
Malawi, and Botswana, three profoundly HIV/AIDS affected
southern states. MSM have not been included in the HIV/AIDS
strategies in these countries and same sex behavior among
consenting adults is criminalized in all three states in 2008.
Concurrency of sexual relationships has been posited by several
groups as a key driver of the high rates of prevalence in the
southern African region [11,12]. Yet concurrency of same and
opposite sex partners has been little studied, and may play
important roles as well.
To address these lack of HIV prevalence and risk and rights
data among MSM in these states, and to support the emerging
community groups advocating for recognition and health services
for these men, our collaborative group developed a technically
simple epidemiology and human rights study protocol which could
be implemented by LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and
Transgender) rights groups with minimal cost, and with maximum
protection for participants. The results presented here are the first
epidemiologic probe of HIV among MSM in Namibia, Botswana,
This study was completed in Blantyre and Lilongwe in Malawi,
Windhoek, Namibia, and Gaborone, Botswana. These countries
were chosen based on being within the encashment area of the
Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, having generalized
HIV epidemics, no data available characterizing HIV risk among
MSM, and having community-based organizations that were keen
and able to collaborate on a study characterizing MSM in their
Study population and sampling methods
Eligible participants were 18 years old or older, had a history of
ever having had anal intercourse with another man, and were able
to give verbal informed consent for HIV screening in local
languages. Inclusion criteria were not based on sexual orientation
or identity, frequency of sexual contacts, previous HIV testing, or
known HIV serostatus. Given the hidden nature of MSM in these
communities, participants were recruited by in-country commu-
nity-based organizations (CBO) with experience working with gay,
bisexual, and other MSM. In-country technical support was
provided as requested by the CBOs. In Namibia, investigators
from the University of Namibia HIV/AIDS unit played a central
role in providing ongoing support for this work. Similarly,
researchers from the Malawi College of Medicine supported the
Malawian CBO. The study staff was provided on–site training in
outreach and recruitment, obtaining informed consent, and in
interviewing techniques. The study was anonymous, confidential,
and no written communications were shared with participants to
minimize the risk of disclosure of MSM status. Sample size
calculations were based measuring risk associated with unprotect-
ed anal intercourse (UAI). Assuming that UAI increases risk of
HIV transmission by approximately 80% with a significance level
of 0.05 and a power of 80%, the minimum necessary sample size
was 150 men. Rounding up, the planned sample size was 200
for each of the three sites for a total of 600 men.
Given the lack of gay venues, recruitment was done through
snowball sampling. In Malawi, 20 seeds were identified by the
local CBO, Center for Development of People (CEDEP), and each
of the seeds recruited either 9 or 10 participants resulting in a total
sample size of 202. In Namibia, 20 seeds were identified by the
local CBO, the Rainbow Project (TRP) and through chain-referral
recruited 20 participants each for a total sample size of 218. In
Botswana, the partner was the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law,
and HIV/AIDS (BONELA), who recruited 10 seeds. However,
ultimately only 117 MSM were accrued in Botswana because of
difficulty in accessing this population and significant delays in the
local approval processes.
Saliva samples were obtained for anonymous rapid HIV
screening among interviewees. Oral fluid HIV was done testing
using the OraSure Oraquick HIV-1/2 kit (Orasure Technologies,
Bethlehem, PA, USA), licensed by the US FDA, with a sensitivity
of 99.1% for oral fluid (compared to 99.7% with serum), and a
specificity of 99.6% with oral fluid (compared to 99.9% with
serum) . This HIV screen was for study purposes, not for
confirmative diagnosis of HIV infection: participants were
encouraged to seek appropriate venues for HIV counseling and
Study Instrument and Interviews
A short structured survey instrument containing 45 questions
was developed with a modified Delphi Method including experts
in determinants of health, HIV epidemiology, and human rights.
The instrument was piloted with MSM CBO members in each of
the countries, and revised and locally adapted. Interviews took
approximately 25 minutes to complete, and collected no identi-
fiable information. After the interview, the oral fluid sample was
obtained and the study participants were remunerated at different
levels (between 5–10 USD) as determined by the partner CBO for
their time and transportation costs. To maintain confidentiality
and anonymity of the participants in the study, two separate rooms
were required to ensure that the person reading the test result did
not make direct contact with the respondent. Instead, non-
traceable alphanumeric participant codes linked the HIV
screening data to the surveys.
Survey instruments were linked anonymously to HIV testing
results using participant codes. Data were doubly entered into
Microsoft Excel and subsequently imported to Stata 9.2 for
analysis. Univariate analyses included two-sample tests for
differences in proportions, x2tests of independence, and logistic
regression assessing the relationship between risk factors and HIV
status. Backward elimination with a p-value set to 0.1 was used to
determine which variables were included in the multivariate
model. .In the multivariate logistic regression models, variables
that were significantly (p,0.05) or moderately significantly
(p,0.1) associated with HIV status were reported by presenting
adjusted odds ratios (aOR) with 95% confidence intervals.
The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of
the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the
University of Namibia, and the Ministry of Health in Botswana.
Ethics approval was also sought from the National AIDS Council
(NAC) in Malawi. While receipt of the application was confirmed
on numerous occasions over many months, no answer was given.
A thorough consultation with the MSM community in Malawi
demonstrated overwhelming support to move forward with the
study. And since the protocol was identical to that approved by the
two other in-country human subjects committees, CEDEP
employed an internal review mechanism and approved the study.
HIV among Southern African MSM
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Sociodemographics and Sexual Practices of study
The participants tended to be young overall with mean ages of
24–26 in each of the three countries (Table 1). The majority had at
least a secondary education, and approximately half were
currently employed. There were high levels of bisexual concur-
rency observed, defined as concurrent regular partnerships with
both men and women, but was most common in Malawi (p,0.05).
In all three countries, MSM had more male sexual partners than
female sexual partners with a mean of between 1–1.5 female sexual
partners in last 6 months, again positively skewed. MSM reported
medians of between 3–4 male sexual partners over the preceding 6
months, though the distributions were positively skewed for all three
countries with a minority of men reporting large number of male
partners. Active bisexual practices–both male and female sexual
partners in the same time frame was common across all three
countries, but again, was most common in Malawi (p,0.05).
Disclosure of sexual orientation to family was more common in
both Namibia and Botswana than Malawi (p,0.05). In Malawi,
less than 10% of respondents disclosed their sexual orientation at
any interaction with a health care worker, and the rate was below
25% in both Namibia and Botswana.
8.7% (38/435) of MSM admitted to injecting drugs, but more
participants refused to answer this question than any other (18.1%
- 97/536). The total sample size varied because participants
refused to answer certain questions of the survey instrument.
In the pooled analysis, 44.7% (238/533) had used the internet
to find a male sexual partner in the last 6 months, with the highest
rates being in Botswana (p,0.05). Across all three sites, the biggest
self-reported risk to one’s health was from HIV/AIDS, though
8.0% of the participants considered violence as the most important
threat to their personal health. Compared to Malawi and
Botswana, MSM in Namibia were less likely to consider HIV/
AIDS as the biggest threat to their health (p,0.05), and most likely
to consider violence as the single biggest threat to their health
Table 1. Selected characteristics of MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana.
Age Mean/Median (Range) 25.6/ 25 (Range 19–49)24.4/23 (Range 18–52) 25.8/24 (Range 18–49)24.9/24
Rural Origin 30.4% (61/201)42.6 (93/218)* 23.1% (27/117) 33.8% (181/536)
Education Primary or less0.5% (1/199) 9.6% (21/218)*1.7% (2/117) 4.5% (24/534)
Secondary or more99.5% (198/199)90.4 (197/218)* 98.3% (115/117)95.5% (510/534)
Currently EmployedEmployed 51% (102/200)41.9% (91/218)49% (57/117) 46.7%( 250/535)
Current Relationship Only Regular Male Partner28.6% (56/196)34.6% (74/214) 45.6% (52/114)* 34.7% (182/524)
Only Regular Female Partner21.9% (43/196)17.3% (37/214) 10.5% (12/114)*17.5% (92/524)
Concurrent Regular Male and
25.5% (50/196)*10.3% (22/214)12.3% (14/114) 16.4% (86/524)
Self –Reported Sexual
Heterosexual 6.5% (13/200) 19.4% (42/216)*3.4% (4/117) 11.1% (59/533)
Gay/Homosexual40.5% (81/200) 48.6% (105/216)66.7% (78/117)*49.5% (264/533)
Bisexual53% (106/200)* 29.1% (63/216) 29.1% (34/117)38.1 (203/533)
Transgender0 (0/200) 2.88% (6/226)0.9% (1/117)1.3% (7/533)
At least one Family member17% (34/200)* 44.5% (97/218)60.3%( 70/116)37.6% (201/534)
Any one Health Care Worker8.96% (18/201)*21.6% (47/218) 24.1% (28/116) 17.4% (93/535)
Family or Health Care Worker 20.5% (41/200)*50.0% (109/218) 64.7% (75/116)42.1% (225/534)
In last 6 months: Number of Male Partners (Mean/
3.9/2 (Range 0–52) 2.9/2 (Range 0–30)2.8/2 (Range 0–24) 3.2/2 (Range 0–52)
Number of men with .=5 partners 17.54% (30/171) 14.7% (31/211)12.8% (15/117) 15.2% (76/499)
Number of female partners (Mean/
1.5/1 (Range 0–12)1.2/1 (Range 0–12)0.7/ 0 (Range 0–7) 1.2/1 (Range 0–12)
Both male and female sexual
partners in last 6months
63.44% (118/186)*50.7% (108/213) 43.6% (51/117)53.7% (277/516)
Have injected illegal drugs (IDU)12.2% (18/147) 48
refused to answer
8% (16/200) 20
refused to answer
3.4% (4/88) 29
refused to answer
8.7% (38/435) 97
refused to answer
Found male partner on internet44.2% (88/199) 38.5% (84/218)56.9% (66/116)* 44.7% (238/533)
threat to health
HIV 84.7% (161/190)58.9% (119/202)* 80.9% (89/110) 73.5% (369/502)
Sexually Transmitted Infections 5.3% (10/190)7.4% (15/202) 2.7% (3/110)3.6% (28/502)
Malaria/Tuberculosis3.2% (6/190)4.5% (9/202)0.9% (1/110) 3.2% (16/502)
Violence 2.6% (5/190) 15.4% (31/202)* 3.6% (4/110)8.0% (40/502)
*Statistically significant difference of proportions (two-sided) for each variable between the three countries (p,0.05).
HIV among Southern African MSM
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HIV Related Knowledge
Men were more likely to have received any information about
how to prevent HIV infection from women than from men in all
three sites (p,0.05) (Table 2). Men were more likely to know that
HIV can be transmitted by vaginal intercourse than by anal
intercourse in both Botswana and Malawi (p,0.05). In the pooled
analysis, 85.3% (44/516) knew that HIV could be transmitted
through injecting drug use. Only 70.3% of men in Malawi knew
that HIV could be transmitted by these three modalities, whereas
this was again higher in Botswana and Namibia (p,0.05),
predominantly because of the dearth of knowledge about IDU.
HIV Risk Factors
Always using condoms among MSM with male or female
partners was equivocal in Malawi and Botswana, but in Namibia,
MSM were more likely to use condoms with men than women
(p,0.01). In Namibia and Botswana, MSM were more likely to
always use condoms with casual partners as compared to their
regular sexual partners (p,0.05), whereas condom use between
casual and regular partners was equivalent in Malawi. Of those
who used lubricants during anal intercourse, a minority (38.2%,
130/340) overall used water-based lubricants as compared to
petroleum-based products including petroleum jelly, fatty and
body creams, with highest rates of WBL use in Botswana (50.7%,
36/71, p,0.05). Finally, only 3.3% (13/389) of the study sample
were practicing safe anal sex as defined by always using condoms
and water-based lubricants.
Transactional sex, as defined by anal intercourse in exchange
for money or gifts with a casual partner, was common across all
three sites. Overall, it was more common in Malawi (62.6% - 124/
198), then Namibia (37.3%-81/217), and least prevalent in
Botswana (29.3% - 34/116) (p,0.05). In Malawi, the sample
this difference was not found in the sample in Namibia or Botswana.
MSM had been most commonly previously tested for HIV in
Botswana (82.9% 97/117), followed by Namibia (59.4%- 129/217),
had ever been told by a health care worker that they had a STI in
Namibia, whereas 8.5% (17/199) of MSM in Malawi had received
this diagnosis similar to 9.4% (11/117) of MSM in Botswana.
Human Rights Contexts
Human rights abuses among MSM in the study sample were
prevalent across all three countries. Between 5–10%, depending
on the site, of the study participants had been denied housing in
the past for reasons other than the ability to pay (Table 3). Being
afraid to seek health services because of sexual orientation was
reported by 17.6% (35/199) in Malawi, 18.3% (40/218) in
Namibia, and 20.5% (24/117) in Botswana. While having been
denied health care was less common with a pooled prevalence of
5.1% (27/533), disclosing sexual orientation to a health care
worker was significantly associated with having been denied health
care (OR 4.2,95% CI 1.9–9.3).
MSM reported being afraid to walk down streets in their own
community most commonly in Botswana , but also to a lesser
extent in Malawi and in Namibia (p,0.05). Overall 42.1% (222/
527) of MSM answered yes to any of these markers of human
rights violation. 12.2% (65/533) of the total sample indicated that
they had been physically abused by a government or police official,
with the highest rates in Namibia (p,0.05). Finally, 11.4% (61/
534) of the sample reported ever having been raped by another
man, with similar rates across the three sites.
Blackmail or extortion on the basis of sexual orientation or
behavior was quite prevalent in the sample with an overall rate of
Table 2. Levels of HIV-related knowledge among MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana.
Characteristic MalawiNamibia Botswana Pooled
Received any information about
preventing HIV infection from
Women 94.5% (189/200)95.0%(207/218)90.6% (106/117) 93.8% (503/536)
Men 56.5% (113/200)* 84.9%(185/218)*50.4% (59/117)* 66.7% (357/535)*
Know that HIV can be transmitted viaAnal Intercourse 92.3% (180/195) 94.3% (200/212)93.1% (108/116)93.1% (488/524)
Vaginal Intercourse 98.5% (197/200)96.3% (208/216)99.2% (116/117)97.8% (521/533)
Injecting Drug Use74.35% (142/191) * 91.5% (194/212)92.0% (104/113)* 85.3% (440/516)*
All three above70.27% (130/185)87.8% (180/205)87.5% (98/112)81.1% (408/536)
*Statistically significant difference of proportions (two-sided) within each country and in pooled analysis (p,0.05).
Table 3. The prevalence of human rights abuses among MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana.
CharacteristicMalawi Namibia Botswana Pooled
Denied housing other than not being able to pay 6.5% (13/200)8.3% (18/218)5.2% (6/116) 6.9% (37/534)
Denied health care based on sexuality4.02% (8/199)8.3% (18/217) 0.85% (1/117)5.1% (27/533)
Afraid to seek health services 17.59% (35/199) 18.3% (40/218)20.5% (24/117)18.5% (99/535)
Afraid to walk in community 15.5% (31/200)16.7% (36/215)29.1% (34/117) 19.0% (101/532)
Blackmailed because of sexuality18.00% (36/200) 21.3% (46/216) 26.5% (31/117)21.2% (113/533)
Yes to any of the above related to sexuality34.34% (68/198) 41.5% (88/212) 56.9% (66/116)42.1% (222/527)
Beat up by government or police official 8.08% (16/198) 21.7% (47/217) 1.7% (2/117) 12.2% (65/533)
HIV among Southern African MSM
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21.2%. In the pooled analysis, univariate associations with
blackmail included having either paid or received money or gifts
for casual sex (p,0.01); having told a member of the family of
one’s sexual orientation (p,0.01); and having a told a clinic or
health care worker of one’s sexual orientation (p,0.05), and not
having had an HIV test in the preceding 6 months (p=0.06)
(data not shown). Multivariate analysis was completed adjusting
for these covariates and blackmail was significantly associated
with having taken part in transactional sex (aOR 2.5,95%CI
1.6–3.8), not having had a HIV test in last 6 months (aOR
0.56,95%CI 0.3–1.0), having disclosed same sex behavior to a
member of the immediate or extended family (aOR 2.3,95%
CI 1.4–3.6), but not to health care workers (aOR 0.9,95%CI
Associations with HIV Infection
The overall HIV prevalence was 17.4% (93/536); however,
there was significant variation of HIV prevalence with increasing
age (Table 4). The HIV prevalence among those between the age
of 18 and 23 was 8.3% (20/241), then 20.0% (42/210) among
those 24–29, and 35.7% (30/84) among those older than 30.
Overall, 23.7% (22/93) were aware of their HIV status, though
this varied significantly between countries (p,0.05). In Malawi,
more than 95% were unaware of their status, whereas in Botswana
76.3% were unaware and in Namibia, 41.8% were unaware of
Univariate predictors varied between countries and can been
seen in Table 5. In the pooled analysis, increasing age, being
employed, not always wearing condoms with men, casual and
regular partner, having been diagnosed with an STI, and having
had transactional sex were significantly associated with HIV
(p,0.05). Furthermore, self-reporting as homosexual or bisexual
compared to heterosexual was associated with HIV (p=0.06). In
the multivariate model, ever having been diagnosed with an STI,
being older than 25 (aOR 4.0, 95% CI 2.0–8.0) and not always
wearing condoms (aOR 2.6, 95% CI 1.3–4.9) were significantly
associated with being infected with HIV in the pooled analysis
(Table 6). Country-specific associations also included having been
diagnosed with an STI was strongly linked to being HIV-positive
(aOR 33.7, 95% CI 3.4–148.2) in Botswana and having used the
internet to find male sexual partners in Malawi (aOR 3.6 95%
Table 4. The prevalence of HIV among MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana and proportion aware of serostatus.
Estimate (n – 95% CI)Estimate (n - 95% CI)Estimate (n - 95% CI)Estimate (n - 95% CI)
All Ages21.4% (43/201 - 16.3–27.6)12.4% (27/218 – 8.7–17.4 )19.66% (23/117 – 13.5–7.8)17.4% (93/536 – 4.4–20.8 )
Age 18–23 15.2% (12/79 – 8.9–24.7)3.5% (4/113 – 1.4–8.8) 8.2% (4/49 – 3.2–19.2) 8.3% (20/241 – 5.4–12.5)
Age 24–29 21.6% (19/88 – 14.3–31.3)17.1% (12/70 – 10.1–27.6)21.2% (11/52 – 12.2–34.0) 20.0% (42/210 – 15.2–25.9)
Age .=30 35.3% (12/34 – 21.5–52.1)31.4% (11/35 – 18.6–48.0)46.7% (7/15 – 24.8–70.0 )35.7% (30/84 – 26.3–46.4)
Aware of HIV status 4.7% (2/43) 59.2% (16/27)17.4% (4/23) 23.7% (22/93)
Table 5. Univariate associations with HIV status among MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana and proportion aware of
MalawiNamibia Botswana Combined
OR (95% CI)OR (95% CI) OR (95% CI) OR (95% CI)
Increasing Age Groups1.7 (1.1–2.8) 7.3 (2.6–20.1)3.2 (1.2–8.2) 2.6 (1.6–4.2)
Self-reported homosexual orientationAll self-reported homosexual
MSM were HIV positive
1.4 (0.4–4.2)0.7 (0.1–7.4)2.4 (0.9–6.3)
Being employed0.9 (0.5–1.8) 0.8 (0.4–1.9)5.0 (1.7–14.5) 1.7 (1.1–2.6)
Not always wearing condoms with men 6.4 (1.4–28.5) 2.8 (1.1–6.8)0.6 (0.2–1.7)2.2 (1.3–3.8)
Not always wearing condoms with women 1.3 (0.3–4.7) 3.7 (0.7–18.6)1.8 (0.3–11.0)2.3 (0.9–5.4)
Not always wearing condoms with casual
7.0 (0.9–53.7)17.7 (2.4–133.3) 0.6 (0.2–2.3)4.9 (2.1–11.4)
Not always wearing condoms with regular
5.6 (0.7–43.4) 8.3 (1.1–62.9)2.0 (0.6–7.6) 4.3 (1.7–10.9)
Used internet to find male partner1.8 (0.9–3.6) 0.9 (0.4–2.1)0.9 (0.4–2.3) 1.3 (0.8–2.0)
Having been ever diagnosed with a STI1.6 (0.5–4.8) 2.9 (1.2–7.2) 16.0 (3.8–67.2) 2.7 (1.5–4.8)
Had transactional sex 1.5 (0.7–3.1) 1.2 (0.5–2.7)2.8 (1.1–7.2) 1.7 (1.1–2.7)
Ever arrested 2.4 (1.0–5.9) 0.8 (0.3–1.8)All MSM who reported
arrest were HIV positive
Having been raped3.3 (0.8–14.7) 1.5 (0.5–4.3) 6.3 (1.5–25.6)1.1 (0.6–2.2)
N Bolded are statistically significant (p,0.05).
HIV among Southern African MSM
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This is the first study to investigate HIV status and risks for HIV
infection among MSM in Namibia, Botswana, and Malawi. It is
also the first attempt, to our knowledge, to evaluate the human
rights contexts among MSM and to link individual level rights
abrogation to HIV biological outcomes in the African context.
Overall, HIV rates were substantial, and risks for HIV infection
from sex with both were men and women were common. The
participants were generally young, though there was a significant
association between HIV and age. Excluding the few men above
the age of 49, overall more than one-third (35.7%, 95%CI 26.3–
46.4) of MSM between the ages of 30–49 were HIV infected.
These data suggest that this is not a new epidemic of HIV among
African MSM which is spreading more rapidly among younger
MSM, as has been seen observed among MSM in other settings
such as Russia . Because younger men were much less likely to
be HIV infected, prevention programs targeting younger MSM in
these populations could have marked potential for avoiding future
infections. All possible combinations of biomedical and behav-
ioural interventions need to be evaluated including those directed
at MSM who are already HIV seropositive. While very little is
known about the benefit of targeted HIV prevention programming
among MSM in Africa, in other contexts these approaches are
known to be very effective in decreasing unprotected anal
intercourse (UAI) [18,19]. Prevention research and optimization
of existing prevention tools for MSM are a clear public health
priority for Southern Africa.
Approximately two-thirds of MSM had received any informa-
tion about preventing HIV infection from other men, which was
higher than expected. However, given that these men were largely
recruited from within the same networks of men who are served by
these CBOs, this likely overestimates the men exposed to this
information in each country. Basic knowledge and condom access
and availability are necessary for increased condom usage, but not
sufficient. Recent studies have demonstrated that African MSM
are less likely to have UAI if they use water-based lubricants
(WBL), have been counseled about the risks of UAI, and more
likely to have UAI if they regularly drink alcohol or do not know
that HIV can be transmitted via anal intercourse [8,10].
Understanding condom use among MSM in the African context
is especially relevant as in all three countries, not always wearing
condoms was highly predictive of being HIV positive. If safe sex is
defined as the usage of WBL in addition to always wearing
condoms, then less than 1 in 20 MSM practiced safe sex in this
study. The more common use of oil-based products, including
vaseline and body/fatty creams appears partly due to cost and
partly to availability. Increasing the availability of affordable and
practical WBL should be a key focus of prevention strategies.
A significant proportion of MSM self-identified as either
heterosexual or bisexual, and many were married or had at least
one female sexual partner in the preceding six months. These
results were consistent with a previous knowledge, attitudes, and
perceptions study of MSM in Malawi. Concurrency of sexual
relationships, which has been posited by many investigators as a
key driver of heterosexual transmission in this region, appears to
be relevant to MSM as well[11,12]. Some 17% of men overall
were in concurrent stable relationships with men and women and
over half of the respondents had both male and female sexual
partners in previous 6 months, suggesting that concurrency of
sexual relationships which include both same and opposite sex
partnerships may be an under—appreciated component of HIV
spread in this region.
Approximately one tenth of men reported the injection of illegal
drugs. There is an increasing appreciation that IDU behavior is
also a reality in the African context, and more work is needed to
better characterize this risk and its relationship to sexual risk
exposures among African men .
The use of the internet to find male sexual partners was
common across all three countries with nearly half of the
respondents reporting using the internet for this purpose. In
settings where homosexuality is criminalized and the police harass
MSM, with no open venues for gay people to congregate, the
internet has preceded the development of openly gay physical
venues. Given the hidden nature of this population, the internet
may represent a powerful tool in efficiently accessing and
delivering HIV prevention education to these men .
Self-reported sexual orientation as homosexual or bisexual
compared to heterosexual was significantly associated with HIV.
While not explored here, this differential risk between identities
may relate to sexual positioning, and will be relevant to HIV
prevention programming . Disclosure of sexual orientation to
either any one member of their immediate or extended family, or
any one health care worker was very low. These are hidden
populations of men, currently only accessible for study and
prevention programming through sexual and social networks with
other MSM. In Kenya, where being MSM has become more of an
accepted identity, the MSM community continues to evolve a gay
identity and become more socially visible . While there is a
real risk for backlash, the self-identification of these men and
community development may allow for better dissemination of
education and prevention measures.
This study served as an assessment of human rights contexts for
MSM in these countries. The results are a powerful reminder of
the level of stigma, discrimination and human rights abuses that
these men face in their everyday lives, including being denied
housing and healthcare, being afraid to walk down the streets of
one’s community, or being afraid to seek health care services.
Table 6. Multivariate adjusted associations with HIV status among MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana and proportion aware
Malawi NamibiaBotswana Combined
aOR (95% CI)aOR (95% CI)aOR (95% CI) aOR (95% CI)
Older than 25 3.6 (1.1–11.1)4.9 (1.5–16.2) 7.2 (1.2–41.9) 4.0 (2.0–8.0)
Not always wearing condoms with men17.1 (1.9–149.8) 6.7(0.8–54.1)0.92 (0.3–2.9) 2.6 (1.3–4.9)
Ever Diagnosed with an STI 2.33 (0.2–23.1)0.55 (0.2–1.9) 33.7 (3.4–148.2)0.72 (0.3–1.6)
Used Internet to find male partners3.6 (1.0–13.7) 1.52 (0.5–4.9)1.1 (0.4–3.3)0.68 (0.4–1.3)
N Bolded are statistically significant (p,0.05).
HIV among Southern African MSM
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Though each of these rights abrogation likely limit access to HIV
preventive services, none were significantly associated with HIV at
the individual level. This could have been because abrogations
were so common that ceiling effects made attribution difficult, as
well as the fact that country sample sizes were small. However,
having disclosed sexual orientation to family members was
significantly associated with blackmail, and, having disclosed
sexual orientation to a health care provider was significantly
associated with having been denied health care. In the short term,
these two factors will continue to limit disclosure of sexual
orientation. In addition, those who reported blackmail were also
less likely to have been tested for HIV in last 6 months. These
structural barriers to available health care services will limit the
efficacy of any interventions targeting individual level determi-
nants of HIV transmission among MSM and must arguably, be
mitigated to effectively decrease HIV incidence .
There are several limitations to this cross-sectional study.
Resources and the constraints of working with small CBOs in
these rights constrained environments limited the scale and scope
of these probe studies. Due to the nature of the study we were
unable to establish directions of causality. There are known biases
in questionnaire-based estimates of sexual violence . Specif-
ically, using narrowly defined terms of sexual violence such as rape
in a study instrument, as was done in this study, may
underestimate its prevalence. The study samples are convenience
samples generated by use of chain-referral techniques rather than
population-based samples, which is a key limitation with this study
methodology and limit the generalizability of the results to the
wider population of MSM in respective countries. This problem,
referred to as homophily, will likely be best addressed by larger
respondent-driven sampling (RDS) studies, and by venue-time
sampling approaches, where feasible. Even with RDS or
venue-based sampling, there will be biases in the sample recruited
and calculated estimates, though likely of lesser magnitude than
when using convenience samples. Non-random sampling may also
have overestimated the level of HIV-related knowledge seen in the
results. Finally, MSM tend to congregate in urban areas, which is
why recruitment took place in urban centers; again, this may limit
One conclusion of this research perhaps bears stating openly:
MSM exist in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana, and are at high
risk for HIV infection and human rights abuses. Piot et al. recently
published a call to action for HIV prevention indicating that each
country should appropriate HIV prevention expenditures in an
evidence-based manner . To date, there have been no
dedicated government expenditures funding evidence-based and
targeted HIV prevention programs for MSM in these three
countries. To comprehensively address the HIV epidemic, African
national AIDS strategies should allocate funds based on evidence
such as presented here, ensuring that the right to health care is
respected for all. Community partners willing and able to do this
challenging work also exist, and supporting these partners and
including them in HIV/AIDS fora in country and internationally
is likely critical to the success of prevention, treatment, and care
programs in these countries.
We would like to acknowledge all of the community groups who continue
to provide front-line human rights advocacy and health services for MSM
in Africa, often with very limited funding and significant personal risk. The
authors would like to acknowledge all of the study staff belonging to the
following organization: Lesbians and Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana
(LeGaBiBo), Botswana Network on Ethics, Law, and HIV/AIDS
(BONELA), The Center for Development of People (CEDEP) in Malawi,
and The Rainbow Project (TRP) in Namibia. We would also like to thank
the team at IGLHRC-Africa for providing ongoing support to the
community members. Benaifer Badha and Christina Alexander of the
Sexual Health and Rights Project (SHARP) at OSI were responsible for
duplicate data entry. Thoko Budaza, Sisonke Msimang, and Vicci Tallis of
the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa provided significant
administrative support to each of the community partners as well as input
into study design and the questionnaire. Joseph Amon of Human Rights
Watch and Sam Avrett of amfAR also provided significant input into the
study questionnaire. Finally, the authors would like to thank Sue Simon
and Heather Doyle, founding and active director of SHARP, respectively,
for being a driving force in initiating this work and providing ongoing
support for this work and our partners.
Conceived and designed the experiments: SB GT FM EU SI FD CB.
Performed the experiments: GT FM EU SI FD. Analyzed the data: SB EU
SI. Wrote the paper: SB CB. Acted as the Study Coordinator: FD.
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