This is a critical, systematic review of the relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and HIV infection in women in Southern, Central and Eastern Africa. In light of the interest in micro-credit programmes and other HIV prevention interventions structured to empower women through increasing women’s access to funds and education, this review examines the epidemiological and public health literature, which ascertains the association between low SES using different measurements of SES and risk of HIV infection in women. Also, given the focus on structural violence and poverty as factors driving the HIV epidemic at a structural/ecological level, as advocated by Paul Farmer and others, this study examines the extent to which differences in SES between individuals in areas with generalized poverty affect risk for SES. Out of 71 studies retrieved, 36 studies met the inclusion criteria including 30 cross-sectional, one case-control and five prospective cohort or nested case-control studies. Thirty-five studies used at least one measurement of female’s SES and fourteen also included a measurement of partner’s SES. Studies used variables measuring educational level, household income and occupation or employment status at the individual and neighbourhood level to ascertain SES. Of the 36 studies, fifteen found no association between SES and HIV infection, twelve found an association between high SES and HIV infection, eight found an association between low SES and HIV infection and one was mixed. In interpreting these results, this review examines the role of potential confounders and effect modifiers such as history of STDs, number of partners, living in urban or rural areas and time and location of study in sub-Saharan Africa. It is argued that STDs and number of partners are on the causal pathway under investigation between HIV and SES and should not be adjusted as confounders in any analysis. In conclusion, it is argued that in low-income sub-Saharan Africans countries, where poverty is widespread, increasing access to resources for women may initially increase risk of HIV or have no effect on risk-taking behaviours. In some parts of Southern Africa where per capita income is higher and within-country inequalities in wealth are greater, studies suggest that increasing SES may decrease risk. This review concludes that increased SES may have differential effects on married and unmarried women and further studies should use multiple measures of SES. Lastly, it is suggested that the partner’s SES (measured by education or income/employment) may be a stronger predictor of female HIV serostatus than measures of female SES.
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