Africa is the continent most severely affected by the global HIV-1 epidemic, with east and southern Africa in general more severely affected than west and central Africa. Differences in the spread of the epidemic can be accounted for by a complex interplay of sexual behaviour and biological factors that affect the probability of HIV-1 transmission per sex act. Sexual behaviour patterns are determined by cultural and socioeconomic contexts. In sub-Saharan Africa, some traditions and socioeconomic developments have contributed to the extensive spread of HIV-1 infection, including the subordinate position of women, impoverishment and decline of social services, rapid urbanisation and modernisation, and wars and conflicts. Populations in many parts of Africa are becoming trapped in a vicious circle as the HIV-1 epidemic leads to high mortality rates in young and economically productive age groups, and thus leads to further impoverishment. Interventions to control HIV-1 should not only target individuals, but also aim to change those aspects of cultural and socioeconomic context that increase the vulnerability to HIV-1 of people and communities.