Microbicides for HIV Prevention: How Gender, Science and the Politics of Social Engineering Intersect




Lufkin, Kimberley

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This thesis examines how advocates and funders in the U.S. global health and international development community conceptualize vaginal microbicides – or products such as gels, films, rings and sponges that women could apply vaginally for HIV prevention. An interdisciplinary approach was employed, combining anthropological and feminist theoretical frameworks and research methods, such as semistructured interviews, participant observation and a focus group discussion. This thesis finds that U.S. microbicide advocates and supporters see these products as a tool to maintain prevailing gender identities that assign men sexual decision-making authority and prestige. At the same time, U.S. microbicide advocates resist gender identities that define men as powerful and women as passive. In these situations, they view vaginal microbicides as a tool that women can use to wrestle sexual decision-making powers from men. From science and technology studies, this thesis employs the concept of non-human agency to argue that microbicide advocates assign to these products a noteworthy amount of power and capacity. Also from science and technology studies, the theory of situated knowledge helps analyze claims made by microbicide advocates, particularly the political implications of claiming to speak from the position of African women. Politics and power are also central themes when examining how vaginal microbicides are entangled with broader U.S. health and development objectives in Africa, and this thesis argues that the rhetoric circulating in the U.S. microbicide advocacy community echoes historical paradigms about health and sexuality in Africa. This thesis also demonstrates that vaginal microbicides do a significant amount of political work, as U.S. microbicide advocates and supporters endow these vaginal products with a distinct level of power to achieve broader U.S. international development goals, such as improving gender relations and empowering women in Africa.



HIV/AIDS, Gender and sexuality, Women's health, Colonialism, African studies