SunHa Ahn


Research title: Social Mental Health and Identities Reconstruction through Digital Communications among Young South African Women and Girls (16-28) around HIV.

Research Summary

Over the past four decades, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (hereafter referred to as HIV) has been positioned as a global epidemic, accounting for an estimated 39 million people living with HIV (PLWH) worldwide (UNAIDS, 2023). Through numerous efforts over years, substantial progress has been made in reducing new HIV infections, mortality, and morbidity globally; however, the gendered ratio of new HIV infections remains disproportionate by region. Notably, South Africa has severely disproportionate rates of new HIV infections among young women (aged 15 and over)—almost twice that of the comparable male group in 2022 (USAIDS, 2023). This health inequality of new HIV infection by gender still remains a conundrum, which led the researcher to a main research question: why are Young South African Women (YSAW) especially vulnerable to HIV infection?
To explore this gendered inequality regarding HIV in South Africa, this study primarily taps into sociological underpinnings of Goffman (1969), Douglas (1966) Foucault (2002), Bourdieu (1987), and William (2010) to examine this illness or health condition. The rationale for this theoretical and methodological choice presumes that the gendered health disparity in South Africa may be a consequence of relational, socio-cultural, and structural dynamics. This is because previous HIV research —which has been dominantly designed under the paradigms of modernism, rationalism, and individualism— has not sufficiently articulated the socio-cultural complexities of such a gendered disparity in South Africa. Such sociological-oriented approaches are important since this phenomenon around HIV may be subject to social stigma and misrecognition within specific societal contexts.
Moreover, previous approaches to HIV seem not to sufficiently reflect on young South African women’s experiences living with HIV in terms of change in digital lifestyles or communication. As digital usage feeds into our personal narratives and every single decision-making process, digital engagements seem emerging to have potential to provide the marginalised with experimental experiences (Turkle, 1995), emotional support (Hargreaves, 2018), and a new wave of socio-cultural values in society (Wessels, 2010). This digital potential in illness management has an implication for identity development processes of young women participants in regard to their sexual health behaviour around HIV, impacting their HIV management. However, little digital health research focusses on the socially marginalised context of YSAW around HIV-related issues. This may be due to structural barriars to digital use in South Africa, including digital affordance, accessibility, and literacy (Hodes et al., 2022).
This thesis is designed to fill these knowledge gaps by taking interdisciplinary approaches to study HIV and young South African women, including sociology, socio-psychology, and anthropology in public health or illness management. These approaches can be seen as an effort to reflect the more contemporary and in-depth context of YSAW based on their on-and offline lived experiences around HIV in South Africa. Aligning with the proposition of interpretivism, decolonial feminism and pragmatism, this thesis aims to explore a leading question of whether YSAW’s identities around HIV can be developed or reconstructed via social, personal, and digital interactions, and vice versa.
After obtaining ethical approval for this research in September 2021, narrative data collection and generation was undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic (2021-2022) by using online mixed methods: 1) online comments (n=12,763) on the South African Springster website, run by the NGO Girl Effect, and 2) in-depth interviews with 21 young women aged 16-28 years, living with or without HIV, recruited in three cities, Cape Town (n=9), Pretoria (n=9), Johannesburg (n=3). Springster’s online comments and interview data were examined by content and thematic analysis methods, respectively in a manual way. The iterative coding process of Springster’s data developed a codebook of interview data. These data sets were commonly categorised within a socio-ecological framework, encompassing structural, socio-cultural, relational, and psychological dimensions. NVivo software was employed for efficient data management and analysis.
Three key findings emerge: (1) Firstly, data from Springster’s online comments shows the communication difficulties YSAW face in talking about sexual activities and choices with their parents. Five digital activities in this regard are described, and the implications of activities in this digital forums are interpreted within the context of contrasting environments in the in-person world regarding HIV, mental health, and identity management. (2) Secondly, the interview data illustrates contradictory narratives on peripheral relationships between face-to-face and digital ones: first, in-person familial relationships impose social pressures over their sexual health decisions, whereas digital relationships play a significant role in filling in the deficiencies of in-person relationships, physically and psychologically. This contrast has a significant implication for femininity reconstruction among young South African Women living with HIV. (3) Finally, in the interviews, HIV-positive participants described their emotional challenges in the HIV journey from diagnosis to treatment adherence, and articulated their strategies for coping with these. My interpretations of their strategies, including digital use and a common phenomenon particiapants choosing to ‘be alone’, are discussed as an aspect of reflection and identity development.
The findings of this study are discussed in relation to their implications for identity development, focussing on three interactive components: relationships, reflection on emotions, and digital engagements. These elements can be conceptualised as social (external), personal (internal), and digital (intersectional) interactions. Hence, this thesis contributes to the academic discourse by suggesting a theoretical intersection that addresses the limitations of Goffmanian and Meadian perspectives by taking into account the socio-cultural aspects of relationships, emotions, and digital activities. This implies that subjectivity building may not occur inherently as previous scholars in the Global North context have presumed. The main methodological contribution of this study is offering a novel, digital approach by utilising pragmatist and decolonial feminist perspectives of the gendered health inequality in the context of young South African women around HIV. Finally, the thesis emphasises the need for open communication about HIV-related issues through combined physical and digital interventions tailored for young South African women. The suggested implications for policy and practices are written with consideration to physical limitations in South Africa. This means that systematic assistance is required, to improve digital accessibility, literacy, and young women-favourable environments, in order to support the feasibility and sustainability of their HIV identity management through social, personal, and digital interactions for YSAW.

Research Interests: 
Sociology in Global Public Health, Multiple Identities, Decolonial Feminism, HIV Young Voices, South Africa, Qualitative Research, Interactionism, Interdisciplinary Approaches(Anthropology, Sociology and Digital Interventions for Illness Management). 


1. Exploring the trends of hate crime (racism-based) in the UK and the Great London Authority’s key policies for social inclusion, Policy Report, The Seoul Institute. 2023

2. Scenario Planning for 2 Koreas in the Korean Peninsula 2019- 2029, Book, 2019.

3. Global Agribusiness Annual Report: Sugar and Bio-Ethanol Industries, Policy Report, Korea Rural Economic Institute, 2017

4. The Cases Study of Urban Agriculture in Singapore, Policy Report, Korea Rural Economic Institute, 2016 

5. Overview of Agriculture Policy in Myanmar and its Outlooks, Policy Report, Korea Rural Economic Institute, 2016. 

6. The Abstract and its Implications of the Philippines’ National Budget, Policy Report, Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, 2016.

7. The Repercussions and Overall Prospects after the Myanmar General Elections. Policy Report, Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, 2015.

8. The Results and its Significance of Myanmar Population and Housing Census for Myanmar’s Future and Political and Economic Transition Process, Policy Report, Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, 2015.

9. The Backgrounds and Prospects of the New Notification of the Minimum Wages Act in Myanmar, Policy Report, Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, 2015. 

10. Vietnam's Economic Transition and its Implication on North Korea, Policy Report, Korea Development Institute and Ministry of Economy and Finance of South Korea, 2015.

11.  Korean DMZ World Ecological Peace Park Accompanying with People, Policy Report, Korea Development Institute and Ministry of Economy and Finance of South Korea, 2014.

12. Joint Consulting Project; Policy Instruction for Green Growth (Case studies: Bangladesh, Indonesia, and South Korea), Policy Report, Korea Development Institute, Ministry of Economy and Finance of South Korea, and World Bank, 2013.


PGR Fieldwork Fund

I gained a PGR fund for the data collection from the school, around 500 pounds. 

PGR Conference Fund

I obtained support from the school for the conferences' presentations, around 700 pounds.


11 Academic Conferences Proceedings, Papers & Posters with Interdisciplinary topics on 

  1. “Understanding Anthropological Perspectives of Emotions as a Strategy to Address Intergenerational Conflicts”, Royal Anthropology Institute. Panel, P45: Anthropology and Education, in Senate House, London, 25-28 June 2024.
  2. “Conceptualising an Indigenous Knowledge-Based Model for A Co-existing Pathway of the Global North and South” at the Conference of Utopia and the Return of History at the University of Manchester, 29-30 April 2024.
  3. “Invisible Young Women’s Voices by Intergenerational Conflicts on Femininity in the South African context.’ at the Conference of CIVIS Blended Intensive Programmes: ‘Making visible the invisible’ Research on inequalities and injustices in cities and urban environments, Brussels, Belgium, 27-29 of September 2023.
  4. “Intergenerational different memories of HIV/AIDS based on Young South African women and girls (16-28) voices” at the 11th International Health Humanities Conference-History and Practice of Human Care, in Derby, UK, 21-23 September 2023.
  5. “Intimate Relationships as A Social Pressure Around HIV-related Issues Among Young South African Women and Girls (16-28): A Sociological Qualitative Study” at ICAIDS 2023: 17. International Conference on HIV, AIDS, and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Malaga, Spain. 4-5 September, 2023.
  6. “Pragmatist Approaches to Intergenerational Conflicts on Sexual Health and Rights in the Context of Young South African Women and Girls (16-28)” at the Annual Conference of British Association for International & Comparative Education (BAICE), University of Cambridge, UK, 5-6 August 2023.
  7. “HIV stigma as a Legacy of Apartheid in the Context of Young South African Women and Girls” at (De)colonial care workshop: place, practice, politics by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of St Andrews, UK, 28 June 2023.
  8. A Poster about “Social Identity Reconstruction via Digital Interactions among South African Youths (16-28) living with HIV” in the session of social-political consideration at the Trustworthy Digital Identity International Conference held by the Alan Turing Institute, London, UK, 16 September 2022.
  9. A Poster about “A Conceptual Framework: Social Mental Health with Multiple Identities Reconstruction”, awarded the People’s Choice prize at the Annual Scientific Conference of NHS Research Scotland Mental Health: ‘Adaption and Renewal: Navigating our Recovery’, Edinburgh, UK, 2 November 2021.
  10. “Decolonising Sexual Health Choices and Rights in the Context of Young South African Women and Girls (16-28)”: ‘Decolonising Gender, Sexuality and Health at the Conference of Moving the Centre 2021: Toward Radical Futures, Cross-Disciplinary Research Conference on Post/Decolonial and Global Studies, Glasgow, UK, 4-6 August 2021.
  11. “Indigenous Women’s Knowledge Value Development for Sustainable Development with Tajikistan Practices”, awarded the 1st prize for excellent thesis presentation at the Spring Academic Conference of the Korea Society of Environment Impact Assessment (KSEIA) at Seoul National University, South Korea, 15 May 2015.


  • GTA in Qualitative Methods at the University of Glasgow in the second term 2021/22 and 2022/2023.
  • Special lectures online called health communication in public health with youths' case studies of the UK and South Africa. It was part of the course, namely, Modern Society and Public Health Environment at the Graduate School of Public Policy and Civic Engagement and the Graduate school of International studies at the University of Kyung Hee in South. Korea in April, May and November, respectively, in 2022. 
  • A Special seminar at the Seoul National University in 2017 regarding the Policy experiences sharing strategy (web-based) of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, South Korea, for the cooperation with overseas public servants & International organisations. 
  • A Special seminar at the University of Daegu, South Korea, in 2018, regarding the Policy experiences sharing strategy (web-based) of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, South Korea.
  • A leadership seminar at the Catholic University of Korea in 2016 regarding How to build my career.
  • A mentorship seminar at the Secondary School called Sinsu Middle School in 2015 regarding How to build my career. 
  • A Special seminar at the MBA School of the University of Yeungnam, South Korea, in 2013: Communication Skills for CEOs.

Additional Information

Public Activities & Memberships


  • PGRs Funds from the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow, 2021/2022 & 2022/2023
  • The People’s Choice prize for Poster Presentation, the Annual Conference of NHS Research Scotland Mental Health, 2021
  • The Recognition Award: Excellent Researcher for The Year, The Seoul Institute, 2016
  • The 1st Prize Award for Thesis Presentation, The Korea Society of Environment Impact Assessment (KSEIA), 2015
  • Scholarship of Academic Excellence, KDI School, 2013-2015
  • The New Artist Award, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, 2008

I have worked in both media communication fields for roughly 7 years and later development policy research for around 5 years as a broadcaster and a researcher, respectively. As a policy researcher affiliated with the Korean government institutes, my main research topics concentrated on development challenges in the least-developed countries economically, socially, and environmentally, suggesting governance services and relevant digital platforms based upon Korean development experiences. In this course, I have experienced working with multi-stakeholders and international organisations and overseas governments.

My academic backgrounds include international relationships and economics in BA (the Catholic University of Korea), development policy in MA (Korea Development Institute School), and political communication in MA (University of Leeds, UK). I hope my PhD journey would be the essence of what I have learned and experienced, in turn, to contribute to making a better world for the marginalised who was treated as the voiceless.