Cultural constraints on the uptake of voluntary medical male circumcision in Eastern and Southern Africa

My previous blog spoke of the recent PLoS-Medicine Collection on the progress of a UNAIDS initiative for a five-year scale-up of Voluntary Male Medical Circumcision (VMMC) for HIV prevention in 14 high priority Eastern and Southern African countries.  Among the papers, Ashengo & Njeuhmeli (A&N) and Macintyre & Bertrand (M&B) deal with what the authors of the Collection Review identify as one of the two major obstacles to deployment of the initiative: the insufficiency of demand, especially amongst older (aged 25+) men.  They consider the cultural and social constraints on demand, as these are reflected in the very different cultural contexts of Zimbabwe and Tanzania/Iringa Province (A&N) and Kenya/Turkana County (M&B).

In Tanzania, where circumcision as a cultural practice is widespread, A&N’s figures show a proportion of older men presenting for VMMC through to 2013 of c.6%.  Very few of these were reached through campaigns, as opposed to routine services.  In Zimbabwe, by contrast, where circumcision is not widely practised, the proportion of aged 25+ circumcised through the program was c.33%.  There was much less difference in the age profiles of those accessed by campaign and routine service modalities.  Whereas, in Tanzania there is a cultural perception “that male circumcision is most appropriate before or during puberty” (and older men do not come to VMMC services in a setting that includes mostly adolescent clients) – in Zimbabwe there is less difference between age groups, either in respect to numbers circumcised or preferred mode of access.  Intriguingly, this suggests that the existence of a cultural norm of circumcision may be more of an obstacle than an asset where older clients are concerned.  Of course, this contrast has to be set in the context of the overall advantage in terms of HIV/AIDS prevention conferred on countries like Tanzania by the existence of the cultural norm.  On difficulties of demand in Zimbabwe specifically, see STI/Kaufman & Ross.

A further insight into the potentially negative impact of existing cultural practice is cast by M&B.  Focus group discussions and in-depth interviews in the rural, traditionally non-circumcising area of Turkana County, Kenya, draw attention to perceptions of circumcision amongst older men that are not favourable to their widespread up-take, especially by the older age-group.  The first is the identification of circumcision with the cultural values of other (potentially hostile) groups.  Interestingly, the negative impact of the perception of the practice as imposed from outside, or else non-traditional, has been demonstrated in other non-circumcising cultures (STI/David; STI/Madhivanan & Klausner). The second is the understandable perception that HIV/AIDS is a “new” problem among young urban dwellers (most Turkana sufferers belong in this category) and that circumcision, as a response to this “new” problem, is appropriate for the young, not for older, rural people (see also responses in a study on the acceptability of VMMC in Rwanda: STI/Mbabazi).

The impression that emerges from both studies is that the existence of a cultural practice of circumcision amongst certain groups in a region does not always confer an advantage where potential clients for VMMC are in the older age groups (25+).  In particular, good uptake of VMMC services by adolescents may actually prove an obstacle for older men, reinforcing the cultural perception of VMMC as primarily for younger men.  In this situation service providers may face a choice between strategies that yield the greatest number of circumcisions through an exclusive focus on the younger age-group, and strategies designed to attract a wider diversity of age-groups.