Friendships Among Young South African Women, Sexual Behaviours and Connections to Sexual Partners

Elizabeth Fearon, Richard D. Wiggins, Audrey E. Pettifor, Catherine MacPhail, Kathleen Kahn, Amanda Selin, F. Xavier Gómez-Olivé, James R. Hargreaves AIDS and Behavior, 2019; Read the full article

Friends could be influential on young women’s sexual health via influences on sexual behaviours and as connections to sexual partners, but are understudied in sub-Saharan Africa.

This paper reports on a cross-sectional survey of 2,326 13–20 year-old women, eligible for grades 8–11 in rural South Africa, about their sexual behaviour and up to three sexual partners. Participants each described five specific but unidentified friends and the relationships between them in an ‘egocentric’ network analysis design. Logistic regression was used to investigate associations between friendship characteristics and participants’ reports of ever having had sex and recent condom use (n = 457). Linear regression was used to investigate friendship characteristics and age differences with sexual partners (n = 633 participants, 1051 partners).


  • It is common for friends to introduce young women to those who later became sexual partners.
  • Having older friends is associated with having older sexual partners (increase of 0.37 years per friend at least 1 year older).
  • Young women are more likely to report ever having had sex when more friends were perceived to be sexually active and when they discussed sex, condoms and HIV with friends.
  • Perception of friends’ condom use was not associated with participants’ reported condom use.

While this study is preliminary and unique in this population and further research should be conducted, social connections between friends and sexual partners and perceptions of friend sexual behaviours could be considered in the design of sexual health interventions for young women in South Africa.

Related resources

STRIVE learning lab: Friendship networks and HIV risk among young women in South Africa

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