Sexual Cultures and Migration in the Era of AIDS: Anthropological and Demographic Perspectives

By Gilbert Herdt | Go to book overview

6 Refugee Women, Violence, and HIV

LYNELLYN D. LONG


Introduction

Seroprevalence studies among refugees migrating to the US suggest that they have relatively low HIV rates, equal to or lower than their countries of origin ( Black, 1993; Tawil, 1990; Refugee Policy Group, 1989). These data, however, may not be representative of the majority of refugees who do not immigrate to a third country but remain in some of the poorest countries in the world and in regions that continue to be beset by conflict. While such studies are critical for dispelling myths of refugees as a special risk group, they do not portend the future for those in situations of conflict. The full health and psychological consequences of recent conflicts in Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, the Gulf, and Bosnia--'in the time of AIDS'--cannot yet be comprehended, much less quantified ( Herdt and Lindenbaum, 1992).

Treating refugees and displaced persons as special risk groups would only further enhance their marginal status and stigmatize refugee women, in particular. Anthropologists have also pointed out the fallacy of the concept of 'risk groups', based on common social or geographical characteristics; they argue for studies of risk behaviour or practices ( Bolton, 1992; Farmer, 1992). However, in the case of refugee women, I would argue that even risk behaviour or practices are not salient. Because many refugee women are not in a secure enough position to negotiate sexual relations, their own behaviour or practices do not influence their relative risk. Instead, as refugee women they face certain risk factors specific to women in situations of violence and uncertainty.

The concept of a sexual subculture must also be reconsidered when applied to refugee women. The category of 'refugee' itself reflects both a juridical and political status in a sovereign state. However, the international system--despite various universal human rights and refugee declarations--cannot guarantee that the refugees' status will be equally honoured and/or recognized. Refugees' access to

____________________
The author wishes to thank Dr Maxine Ankrah and Ms Julie Denison of AIDSCAP, Dr Mohammed Dualeh of UNHCR/ Geneva, Ms Heather Courtney of UNHCR/WDC, Dr Barbara de Zalduondo of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and Mr Bill Brady of the Center for Disease Control for their insights and help in locating scarce materials. My own work in different refugee settings has been funded by Johns Hopkins University, the Agency for International Development, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Catholic Organization for Relief and Refugees, and the Wenner- Gren and MacArthur Foundations. Any errors in this work are my own. This paper is dedicated to Dale Rezabek for his work with refugees.

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