Gendered health institutions: examining the organization of health services and men’s use of HIV testing in Malawi

Dovel, K., Dworkin, S. L., Cornell, M., Coates, T. J., & Yeatman, S.


Men in sub-Saharan Africa are less likely to use HIV testing services than their female counterparts. Norms of masculinity are frequently cited as the main barrier to men’s use of HIV testing services, but very little is known about how health institutions are organized to facilitate or impede men’s care. We examined the organization of health institutions in Malawi, and implications for men’s use of HIV testing services.


A mixed methods ethnography was conducted in Malawi between October 2013 and September 2014. National Ministry of Health guidelines from 2012 to 2014 were analysed, counting the frequency of recommended preventative services by sex. In-depth interviews were conducted with 18 healthcare workers and 11 national key informants (29 total). Five rural health facilities participated in direct observation and 52 observational journals were completed to document the structure and implementation of HIV services within local facilities. All data were analysed using the theory of gendered organization. Findings were grouped into one of the three theoretical levels of organization: (1) organizational policy; (2) organizational practice; and (3) structure of gendered expectations.


Health institutions were gendered across three levels. Organizational policy: National guidelines omitted young and adult men’s health during reproductive years (176-433 recommended visits for women vs. 32 visits for men). Health education strategies focused on reproductive and child health services, with little education strategies targeting men. Organizational practice: HIV testing was primarily offered during reproductive and child health services and located near female-focused departments within health facilities. As these departments were women’s spaces, others could easily tell that men were using HIV services. Structure of gendered expectations: Clients who successfully accessed HIV testing services were perceived as exemplifying characteristics that were traditionally considered feminine: compliance (obeying instructions without explanation); deference (respecting providers regardless of provider behaviour); and patience (“waiting like a woman”).


Health institutions in Malawi were organized in ways that created substantial, multilevel barriers to men’s HIV testing and reinforced perceptions of absent, difficult men. Future research should prioritize a gendered organization framework to understand and address the complex realities of men’s constrained access to HIV services.