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Agency as a mediator in the pathway from transactional sex to HIV among pregnant women in Swaziland: a multigroup path analysis

Rebecca K Fielding-Miller, Kristin L. Dunkle, Craig Hadley, Hannah L. F. Cooper, Michael Windle


Introduction: Transactional sex is a structural driver of HIV for women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa. In transactional relationships, sexual and economic obligations intertwine and may have positive and negative effects on women’s financial standing and social status. We conducted a clinic-based survey with pregnant women in Swaziland using a locally validated transactional sex scale to measure the association between subjective social status, transactional sex, and HIV status, and to assess whether this association differed according to a woman’s agency within her relationship.

Methods: We recruited a convenience sample of 406 pregnant women at one rural and one urban public antenatal clinic in Swaziland and administered a behavioural survey that was linked to participant HIV status using clinic records. We then conducted a multigroup path analysis to test three hypotheses: (1) that more engagement in transactional sex is associated with decreased condom use and increased subjective social status; (2) that subjective social status mediates the relationship between transactional sex and HIV status; and (3) that these relationships are different across groups according to whether or not a woman reported any indicator of constrained agency within her relationship.

Results: The amount and value of material goods received from a sexual partner was significantly and positively associated with higher subjective social status among all participants. As the amount of material goods received from a partner increased, women who reported no indicators of constrained agency were less likely to use condoms. Conversely, there was no relationship between transactional sex and condom use among women who reported any indicator of constrained relationship agency. Among women who reported any indicator of constrained agency, HIV was significantly associated with lower subjective social status.

Conclusions: Relationship agency likely plays a key role in determining which mechanisms create HIV risk for women in transactional relationships. Interventions to mitigate these risks must address social forces that penalize women who engage in sexual relationships as well as structural drivers of gendered economic disparity that reduce women’s agency within their sexual and romantic relationships.

Keywords transactional sex; Swaziland; structural equation modeling; social status; HIV/AIDS; agency; cultural consensus modeling

(Published: 18 July 2017)

Fielding-Miller R et al. Journal of the International AIDS Society 2017, 20:21554 |

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Journal of the International AIDS Society | eISSN 1758-2652 | Editors-in-Chief: Susan Kippax and Kenneth Mayer

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