Cervical cancer is the primary cause of cancer deaths among Haitian women; however, the social context of cervical cancer among Haitian immigrant women has not been systematically examined. The ways in which women assign meaning to this disease, understand its causality and situate it within the broader context of gynecological health are poorly understood. Further, Haitian immigrant women’s perceptions of disease risk, including knowledge and understanding about Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the primary etiologic factor in cervical cancer, have not been explored. Few studies have assessed health behaviors, including culturally mediated feminine hygiene practices, among Haitian immigrant women, which may negatively impact gynecological health.
This exploratory study examines these dimensions of gynecological health using ethnographic methods including participant observation, observation, informal and semistructured interviewing and surveys. Ethnographic data contextualize this disease in larger cultural and historical contexts. In addition, these data informed the construction of a 92-itemsurvey, ensuring content validity of the personal questions women were asked about feminine hygiene practices and the agents they use. This survey, administered to 246 women in Little Haiti, Miami, represents an application of medical anthropology to epidemiologic research. Each survey respondent also was evaluated for cytology and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HPV, using a self-sampling medical device.
Quantitative analysis of survey data indicates that prevalent STIs (Chlamydia) are significantly associated with feminine hygiene practices; however, HPV infection and cervical cancer are not associated with the practices. The practices are likely underreported in the survey sample. Qualitative analysis reveals that women’s constructions of gynecological health are inseparable from cultural beliefs that emphasize feminine hygiene. Beliefs guide behaviors, which include vaginal douching and intravaginal washing, using plant-based therapies, imported commercial products and chemical compounds. These practices serve the purpose of not only cleaning, but also drying and tightening the vaginal environment for increased sexual pleasure of male partners. Attempts to preserve relationships, and reduce the chance that partners will take mistresses, occur through maintaining intimate hygiene and, in some cases, by other ethnomedical means.