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Three randomised controlled trials in Africa indicated that voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) is an effective method to reduce a man’s risk of becoming infected through sex with an HIV-positive female partner. The success of recent public health initiatives to increase numbers of circumcised men in Malawi has been very limited. We conducted in-depth interviews and focus group discussions (FGDs) with men, women and male adolescents from non-circumcising and circumcising communities in southern Malawi to better understand their beliefs about male circumcision and the promotion of VMMC for HIV prevention. Results revealed that beliefs about male circumcision, in general, are strongly mediated by Malawian culture and history. Participants have attempted to develop a new meaning for circumcision in light of the threat of HIV infection and the publicised risk reduction benefits of VMMC. Several study participants found it difficult to distinguish VMMC from traditional circumcision practices (jando and lupanda), despite awareness that the new form of circumcision was an expression of (western) modern medicine performed largely for public health purposes. Greater recognition of background cultural beliefs and practices could inform future efforts to promote medical male circumcision as an HIV prevention strategy in this context.