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Gender Differences and Relationship Power Could be Key in Preventing HIV Among South African Adolescents

University of Pennsylvania Study is the First Known to Examine Gender Differences in Intimate Partner Violence and Relationship Power Among Adolescents in South Africa

Newswise — PHILADELPHIA, PA (April 26, 2016) – Millions of those infected with HIV worldwide are young women, ages 15-24, according to the World Health Organization. Because the HIV epidemic overlaps with an epidemic of intimate partner violence (IPV) against women and girls, researchers have suspected a correlation between inequities in relationship power and the risky sexual behavior that can lead to HIV transmission.

A new research study from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing (Penn Nursing), Annenberg School for Communication, and Perelman School of Medicine investigated and confirmed those associations of intimate partner violence (IPV) and relationship power with sexual-risk behaviors in adolescents. The researchers identified promising pathways to reduce IPV and help prevent HIV infection, including promotion of gender equity as a social norm. The findings are set for publication in an upcoming issue of Health Psychology.

The research was conducted in South Africa, where the prevalence of both HIV and IPV is high and men often have more power in relationships than women. The team assessed data from more than 700 sexually experienced adolescents in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa who had been followed at regular intervals for 54 months as part of a separate NIH-funded trial.

The researchers focused on HIV sexual risk-related behaviors including condom use and having multiple sex partners, and instances of intimate partner violence as well as relationship power.

Overall, 83 percent of the participants had experienced at least one type of IPV within the past year. Girls who reported suffering more instances of intimate partner violence were less likely to use condoms the last time they had sex. In addition, both boys and girls with less power in their relationship were more likely to report sex with multiple partners in the past 3 months.

“For girls, IPV and lower relationship power affect interpersonal dynamics, which increase sexual risk through condom nonuse. In addition, girls with higher levels of relationship power are less likely to have multiple partners,” explains the article’s lead author Anne M. Teitelman, PhD, FNP-BC, FAANP, FAAN, the Patricia Bleznak Silverstein and Howard A. Silverstein Endowed Term Chair in Global Women's Health and Associate Professor at Penn Nursing.

The research is the first known study to examine IPV and relationship power among adolescent boys in South Africa. It found that boys who reported experiencing more victimization were more likely to report having multiple partners. It also showed that boys who experience IPV and who have lower relationship power are more likely to use condoms.

The findings indicate that the impact of IPV and relationship power on sexual risk behaviors differs significantly by gender; therefore, an important consideration is how sexual risk-reduction interventions for adolescents in South Africa should be implemented.

“Our findings suggest that HIV prevention interventions should incorporate gender-specific components and not only address individual attitudes about IPV and interpersonal gender power dynamics, but use community-level approaches to change harmful social gender norms that perpetuate inequalities,” says Teitelman.

This research drew on a separate NIH-funded HIV/sexually transmitted infection (STI) risk-reduction intervention trial led by John B. Jemmott III, PhD, Kenneth B. Clark Professor of Communication and Psychiatry at the Penn Annenberg School for Communication and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. That eight-year study interviewed South African adolescents at 3, 6, 12, 42, and 54 month intervals following an initial intervention. Jemmott is also an author on the current study.

In addition to Teitelman and Jemmott, the research team included Scarlett L. Bellamy, ScD, Penn Medicine; Larry D. Icard, PhD, Temple University; Ann O’Leary, PhD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; G. Anita Heeren, PhD, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania; Zolani Ngwane, PhD, Haverford College; and Sarah J. Ratcliffe, PhD, Penn Medicine.

This research was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grants R01 MH065867 and K01 MH080649, with additional support from the Penn Center for AIDS Research, funded by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Grant P30 AI045008.

Editor’s Note: The team of researchers report no conflicts of interest.

About the University of Pennsylvania School of NursingThe University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing is one of the world’s leading schools of nursing, is consistently ranked as one of the top graduate nursing schools in the United States, and is among the nation’s top recipients of nursing research funding from the National Institutes of Health. Penn Nursing prepares nurse scientists and nurse leaders to meet the health needs of a global society through research, education, and practice. Follow Penn Nursing on: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram & YouTube.

About the Annenberg School for CommunicationFounded in 1959 through the generosity and vision of diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania is devoted to furthering our understanding of the role of communication in public life through research, education, and service. With strengths in health communication, political communication, culture and communication, media institutions, digital media, and global communication, ASC is ranked as the top Communication school in the nation.

About the Perelman School of MedicinePenn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.