Migrants and AIDS: Risk Management versus Social Control: An Example from the Senegal River Valley

By Lalou, Richard; Piché, Victor | Population, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

Migrants and AIDS: Risk Management versus Social Control: An Example from the Senegal River Valley


Lalou, Richard, Piché, Victor, Population


Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the association between migration and contamination has been an issue. Migrants were initially seen as a medium for the spread of the disease in the host population. This approach was very controversial, and was replaced by a view that treated the migrants above all as sexually and socially vulnerable individuals at risk of becoming infected. This article analyses data from a survey on return migrants in the Senegal River valley. Richard LALOU and Victor PICHÉ consider the issue from a completely different perspective. Individuals actively shape their own behaviour, adapt to the situation and manage risks in given environments. Upon their return to their community of origin, the international migrants tend to remain faithful to their spouses, whereas the internal migrants do not necessarily renounce multiple partnerships, but lend to protect themselves by using condoms. Thus it appears in this part of Senegal that the migratory experience does not result in an actual increase of risky behaviour in the return area. This is doubtless one of the factors, among many others, which explains the persistence of a low prevalence of AIDS in Senegal.

Although numerous studies have already shown the existence of an association between geographic mobility and AIDS (Lalou and Piché, 1994; Decosas and Adrien, 1997; Kane et al., 1993), the complex processes underlying this association are still poorly understood (Soskolne and Shtarkshall, 2002). Since the beginning of the epidemic, analyses of the relationship between AIDS and migration have frequently borrowed customary interpretations from public health to account for the health of migrants. In this context, AIDS is either a "pathology of importation" and the migrants are its carriers, or a "pathology of adaptation" and the migrants accumulate vulnerabilities favourable to the infection when subjected to a stressful environment - that of their host area (Gentilini and Duflo, 1986; Gentilini, Briicker and de Montvalon, 1986). In the first case, containing the epidemic implies controlling the migrant population; in the second case it depends on an awareness of the plight of migrants, and on fair access to treatment. The approach shifts from a mode of stigmatization to one of compassion.

The first point of view - that of the pathology of importation - is mostly present in research concerned with the epidemiological aspects of AIDS. Like other infections, HIV is transmitted from one person to another and circulates according to the direction and rhythm of human moves. For sub-Saharan Africa, a significant number of studies have confirmed these clear associations between the epidemic's spatial dynamics and labour migration (Painter, 1992; Hunt, 1996; Prothero, 1996), forced migration (Prothero, 1994), urbanization (Lydie et al., 2001), and major roads (Marck, 1999). The geography of AIDS, as that of many epidemics of the past, confirms the existence of such a relationship (Prothero, 1977; Amat-Roze, 1989 and 1993; Lydié et al., 1998).

Admittedly, this interpretation has the merit of shedding some light on the epidemic's dynamics. However, it also addresses the association between migration and AIDS in a mechanical manner, without explicit reference to the modes of transmission. Here, the body of the migrant is an infected and contagious body. It is the vehicle for a virus looking to conquer other bodies and other territories. It is also a body separated from its social and cultural reality. Sexual behaviour, i.e. the practices that connect the intimate with the social and through which the virus is transmitted, is subordinated to the essential characteristic of the migrant, mobility. From this point of view, it can be said that the analysis belongs to the biological rather than to the social plane, and that it is less interested in the association between migration and AIDS than in the migration of AIDS (or the spread of HIV). …

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