Latina and African-American women’s experiences with gender, religion and HIV prevention

Principle Investigator: Rita Melendez, PhD

Study Background

African-American women and Latinas are the ethnic groups that make up the majority of HIV infections among women. African Americans make up 12% of the US population; however, they account for 50% of the over 1 million individuals diagnosed with HIV. The HIV rates for African-American women were 19 times the rates for White women during the years 2000 to 2003. Although Latinos represent 13% of the US population they account for 18% of those infected with HIV. Between the years 2001 and 2004, 6,610 Latinas were infected. Although this seems like a small number, HIV rates are greatly underestimated for Latinas. Many Latina women are unable to receive health care due to immigration status, lack of funds, language barriers, parental barriers or familial obligations. Due to the limitations Latinas face in receiving healthcare, many are infected with HIV and do not know it. Both Latinas and African-American women are more likely to be infected through sex with male partners, making safer sex negotiation a priority.

Because women are more likely to have a stronger personal religious commitment and attend church more frequently than men regardless of religious affiliation, religious organizations seem like an ideal location to diffuse HIV prevention messages to women. However, religious beliefs may run counter to proven-effective HIV prevention messages relating to female empowerment vis-à-vis male partners. Women who score higher on femininity scales such as the Bem Sex Role Inventory also score higher on religiosity measures such as spirituality and church attendance. A study found that women who are religiously devout endorse more traditional attitudes toward gender roles than their counterparts who are less religiously committed. Another study found that those who reported higher religious orthodoxy were more likely to endorse forced marital sexual intercourse.

This project uses the work of HIV researchers in gender role theory as a basis for inquiry. Gender roles refer to culturally prescribed norms, ways of being and acting, particular to men and women. Over the years, gender roles have changed, but research indicates that traditional gender roles, where women are passive and men active, prevail in sexual relationships. Traditional gender roles are most observable in heterosexual relationships where women’s subordination and passivity to men is expected. Women are not expected to be active in voice or physicality but rather to let male partners make decisions determining the sequence for the sexual encounter – passivity may result in lack of condom use (relating to HIV) or unwanted pregnancy. This study will explore if women perceive HIV prevention messages coming from religious leaders as endorsing traditional gender roles and if traditional gender roles can provide some women with tools for remaining safe from HIV.

Study Overview

The proposed project is a two-year study of African American and Latina women, their religious beliefs, gender roles, and HIV prevention. The study will explore women’s experiences in religious organizations relating to their roles as wives, mothers, friends and partners. Women will also be asked to discuss their beliefs of how HIV prevention may best be suited in religious organizations. It will further explore if and how religious organizations can best provide HIV prevention for African-American and Latina women. It will explore the relationship between religious beliefs and gender roles as well as if religious organizations play a role in promoting traditional or non-traditional gender roles for women. Furthermore, analysis of these data will help researchers understand how women handle dissonance between their personal behaviors and their religious beliefs.

This research project will re-interview 40 women from Gender-Equity Model research study (GEM; PI Cynthia Gomez) which consists of 512 (at baseline) Latina and African American women from the San Francisco Bay Area. Only women who indicated that they wanted to be contacted for future studies at SFSU will be contacted and asked a few screening questions to determine eligibility for being interviewed.

Women were originally interviewed at baseline, as well as 6-, 12- and 18-months follow-ups. The GEM study sought to better understand the intersection of sexual gender norms and socioeconomic context and their association with sexual risk behaviors among African-American and Latina women. The GEM project is currently in the analysis phase – all assessments with women have been completed. Additionally, many of the women interviewed for GEM have agreed to be re-contacted for additional studies.


Funding for this project comes from the HIV Intervention Science Training Program –an NIMH funded training program funded to Columbia’s School of Social Work (Nabila El-Basel PI).